Galdikas, Biruté (1948—)

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Galdikas, Biruté (1948—)

German-born primatologist and conservationist. Name variations: Birute Galdikas; Biruté M.G. Galdikas. Pronunciation: bi-ROO-tay GAHL-dikuhs. Born Biruté Marija Filomena Galdikas on May 10, 1948, in Wiesbaden, West Germany; eldest of the four children of Anatanas Galdikas (a miner) and Filomena Galdikas; grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; attended Elliot Lake High School, in northern Ontario; attended the University of British Columbia; B.A. (summa cum laude), 1966, M.A., and Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); married Rod Brindamour, in 1970 (divorced 1979); married Pak Bohap (a Dayak tribesman and farmer), in 1981; children: (first marriage) son, Binti Paul Brindamour (b. 1976); (second marriage) Frederick Bohap; Filomena Jane Bohap .

Started the Orangutan Research and Conservation Project in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo (1971); became an Indonesian citizen; serves as a professor extraordinaire at the Universitas Nasional in Jakarta; under a special decree, served as a senior advisor to Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry on orangutan issues (March 1996–March 1998); won the prestigious Kalpataru award, the highest award given by the Republic of Indonesia for outstanding environmental leadership, the first person of non-Indonesian birth and one of the first women to be so recognized by the Indonesian government (June 1997).

It has been said that Canadian primatologist Biruté Galdikas simply knows more about orangutans than anyone else in the world. Indeed, since 1971, when she launched the Orangutan Research and Conservation Project in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Galdikas has lived and worked in the rain forest, studying and preserving "the people of the forest," which is how Malays refer to the orangutans. "To do what she does takes tremendous grit and a willingness to put up with not just the uncomfortable aspect of living out in the tropics but the politics and logistics of it all," said Dr. Gary Shapiro, a vice president of Orangutan Foundation International, which Galdikas established in 1987. "That's the whole reason there aren't more people doing these kinds of studies. It's extremely difficult to keep up that energy level, and she's done it." Along with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey , who similarly researched chimpanzees and gorillas, respectively, Galdikas is one of "Leakey's Angels," a reference to the great anthropologist Louis Leakey who supported all three women in their work.

Of Lithuanian heritage, Galdikas was the eldest of the four children (two girls and two boys) of Anatanas and Filomena Galdikas . Born in Wiesbaden, in what was then West Germany, she grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where her parents settled when she was two. As a child, Galdikas was influenced by the natural world around her and by her mother's bedtime stories about ancient cultures. As a result, she developed into what she calls "that unlikely combination of bookworm and nature lover." She recalls that the first book she ever checked out of the library was H.A. and Margaret Rey 's children's classic, Curious George, featuring a monkey as its title character, and that as she matured she remained fascinated by apes, jungles, and history. "Not just the written history, but all of it," she told Sy Montgomery. "Human history and beyond.… I remember thinking that if we understood our closest human relatives we'd understand our origins… maybe our own behavior."

Galdikas attended high school in northern Ontario, where the family moved after her parents lost just about everything in a bad real-estate transaction. While attending Elliot Lake High School, Galdikas became interested in orangutans, because, in her words, "I thought they must resemble our own ancestors who stood at the beginning of prehistory." She was particularly drawn to the orangutan's eyes, which unlike those of gorillas and chimps, resemble the eyes of humans, with irises surrounded by white. In time, Galdikas' fascination with the red apes solidified into a plan to study the animals in their natural habitat.

After high school, while her family was waiting for visas to join relatives in Los Angeles, California, Galdikas briefly attended the University of British Columbia. In 1965, she entered the University of Southern California at Los Angeles (UCLA), graduating with a B.A. in psychology in 1966. She immediately began graduate study in the department of anthropology, specializing in archaeology and taking every opportunity to join weekend excavations in order to gain field experience. She also spent a semester at the University of Arizona field school, working at the Grasshopper field site at the Fort Apache reservation. While still studying at UCLA, Galdikas met the two men who would greatly influence her future: Rod Brindamour, a 17-year-old Canadian whom she would marry in 1970, and Louis Leakey, who would help her realize her goal to initiate a long-term study of orangutans.

Galdikas first approached Leakey following a lecture he delivered at the UCLA campus in 1969. "As soon as I heard him talk about primates and great ape studies, and sending Jane and Dian into the field, I knew this was it," she later recalled. But first Galdikas had to qualify for Leakey's support, which necessitated submitting to a series of strange little "intelligence" tests. In one such brainteaser, Leakey spread out a deck of playing cards face down on the table and told her to identify which cards were red and which were black. The design on all the cards was identical, but Galdikas noticed that half the

cards were slightly bent and half were not. When she told Leakey this, he fairly twinkled with delight, having confirmed to his satisfaction that Galdikas, like Goodall and Fossey before her, possessed the observation skills necessary to the study of animal behavior. (Leakey confided in her that men tended to fail his little test. He also shared his view that women were more perceptive and more patient then men, and less likely to excite aggressive tendencies in male primates the way men did.) Leakey was also impressed with Galdikas' enthusiasm and determination, which he prized even above formal education. He agreed to sponsor her and began looking into a research site and funding for her project. In the interim—"limbo," as she would later call it—Galdikas finished her Ph.D. course work, as Leakey had suggested. She spent time studying the six immature orangutans at the Los Angeles zoo and made two trips to what was then Yugoslavia to work on joint American-Yugoslav archaeological ventures. She also conducted a commuter relationship with Rod, who, following their marriage in 1970, had returned to Canada to finish high school and begin college.

By 1971, Leakey had raised $9,000, enough to get the orangutan project off the ground. (During the first decade of the project, Galdikas received additional funding from the National Geographic Society, the World Wildlife Fund, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, the New York Zoological Society, and the Chicago Zoological Society. From 1984, the bulk of funding for the project was provided by Earthwatch, a Massachusetts-based scientific organization which also supplied Galdikas with teams of volunteers who paid their own way to assist her in her research.) In November 1971, Galdikas and her husband finally arrived in the old hut that would be their home at Tanjung Puting, in the heart of the swampy forest of southern Borneo. "It was filthy and filled with all sorts of vermin," she told People Weekly. Beyond the primitive living quarters, which she christened "Camp Leakey," were perilous encounters with wild pigs, crocodiles, and poisonous snakes. But, as Galdikas later related in her book Reflections of Eden, the true hazards of the rain forest were really the "little nagging things like viruses, parasites, insects, and plant toxins. The leeches were so abundant that we lost track of how many we took off our bodies during the course of any one day. Bloated with our blood, leeches fell out of our socks, dropped off our necks, and squirmed out of our underwear." She also described a deep and painful skin burn she developed from sitting on a fallen log that was oozing toxic sap. There were the additional hardships of constant humidity which permeated clothing and rotted books, and a limited diet consisting mainly of rice, canned sardines, pigs' feet, and bananas.

In addition to the struggle of day-to-day living was the enormous challenge of trying to locate the animals she had been commissioned to study. Although she sometimes spotted their night nests high in the trees, the orangutans themselves continually eluded her, disappearing into the foliage as soon as they detected her presence. If she did manage to close in on a group, they made it clear that she was not welcome, hurling fruit and dead trees in her direction. If Galdikas was successful in tracking one or more of the animals for several days, she found, more often than not, that "nothing happened." Unlike highly sociable chimps and gorillas, orangutans typically spend their days alone, often doing nothing more exciting than swinging from tree to tree looking for food. Moreover, when the animals do form groups, they seldom interact, tending to ignore each other. "Compiling data on the animals was considerably tougher for Biruté than for me," Jane Goodall once remarked. "Chimps are very sociable. It might take her a year to see what I can observe in one lucky day."

Galdikas, however, persevered, and in her years of research amassed an extraordinary amount of information about the species. She was the first scientist to discover that orangutans are not strict vegetarians, and the first to document the eight-year birthing cycle of the female. Although orangutans are notoriously solitary animals, Galdikas found that they are not totally antisocial. Adult females, who reach sexual maturity at about ten, nurture their offspring until they reach seven or eight, and adolescent females frequently forage for food in groups. The real loners of the species are the adult males, who only keep the company of a female for mating purposes and care little about offspring. Males will also occasionally rape a female, causing the female to bite her attacker and emit what Galdikas identified as a "rape grunt." Still, for the most part, orangutans do not require much contact with one another, a fact that profoundly affected Galdikas. "Orangutans forced me to come to terms with my own human nature, with the 'weakness' of simply being human," she wrote. "Homo sapiens is a sociable species. We need mates, children, loved ones, friends, acquaintances, even pets. Without intimate relationships, without communities, we are stranded."

In addition to tracking orangutans in their natural environment, Galdikas also became involved in the on going rehabilitation of ex-captive animals rescued from black-market traders. When feasible, the animals are nursed back to health and then released into the wild. Thus, Galdikas serves as a surrogate mother to large numbers of ex-captive orangutans, who in varying degrees interact with her and all of the other people involved in the project. Even Galdikas' first child, Binti Paul, born in 1976, played fearlessly among the animals when he was a baby. "Sometimes, I felt as though I were surrounded by wild, unruly children in orange suits who had not yet learned their manners," Galdikas wrote in a 1980 article in National Geographic. As of 2000, Galdikas had successfully returned more than 200 orangutans back into the wild, prompting the wildlife-conservation community to laud her efforts. Although some scientists have expressed concern about the impact of the ex-captives on the ecology, Galdikas argues that since orangutans have become an endangered species, the program is crucial. Others criticize her methods of introducing the ex-captives back into the wild population, saying it is frequently unsuccessful and risks transmitting fatal diseases to the wild orangutans. In contrast to Galdikas' approach, Dutch botanist Willie Smits, who oversees a orangutan reserve in eastern Borneo, limits human contact with the animals and releases them back into the jungle in places where there are no wild orangutans. Richard Wrangham, a primatology professor at Harvard University, upholds Smits' method, calling it "biologically appropriate."

As an adjunct to her work in returning captive orangutans to the wild, Galdikas is also involved in the preservation of the species whose numbers have been threatened partly by poachers, but more so by the clearing of vast areas of the forests by loggers. To raise money for this aspect of her work, Galdikas established the Orangutan Foundation International, a non-profit organization headquartered in Los Angeles. The commitment to conservation forced Galdikas to master the intricacies of the Indonesian bureaucracy, which she accomplished through diplomacy and by establishing good working relationships with government officials. She has earned the respect of many high officials and has enjoyed a number of significant victories, among them having Tanjung Puting declared a national park, thus bringing an end to trade in captive orangutans in the province.

Galdikas documented the early years of her research in her Ph.D. thesis, completed in 1978. Since that time, she has published very little of her research findings, a fact that draws sharp criticism from her academic colleagues, including Peter S. Rodman, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Davis. "Here is someone who has this tremendous wealth of material. It could answer questions that the rest of us can only speculate about and we can't get at it," he told Mark Starowicz of The New York Times Magazine. "There are some implicit rules about what we do. If we seek support from some agency, then we receive it, and other people don't. So you expect something more than National Geographic articles, and descriptions of one's personal life with apes." In 1994, Earth-watch withdrew its support of Galdikas, citing, among other things, her failure to publish reports on her observations. Galdikas has responded to her critics by pointing out that her preservation work is simply more important. "When a species in threatened with extinction," she proclaims, "I don't understand how anyone can say it is more important to study than to save it."

Galdikas' dedication to her work has taken its toll on her personal life. In 1978, her husband Rod returned to Canada with Binti's Indonesian babysitter, with whom he had fallen in love. After so many years in Galdikas' shadow, he also wished to return to school and pursue a career of his own. In 1979, the couple divorced, and Binti ultimately went to live with his father. (Galdikas has visited him yearly from 1981, when she became at visiting professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she is now a full professor.) In 1981, Galdikas married Pak Bohap, a Dayak tribesman who had been an employee at Camp Leakey. Since Bohap has never traveled outside of Indonesia, speaks no English (Galdikas is fluent in Indonesian), and has only a sixth-grade education, the marriage mystified some of Galdikas' Western colleagues. "He's as educated as I am, except he wasn't educated at a university. He was educated by experience," Galdikas told People. "He's a very smart and shrewd man—smarter than I am." The couple have two children—Frederick and Filomena Jane (named for Galdikas' mother and Jane Goodall)—and live in a large home Bohap built in his native village of Pasir Panjang. Though he respects her research and helps her with her fieldwork, Bohap has returned to farming, his occupation when the couple met, and he does not accompany Galdikas when she travels to lecture or teach. "Cross cultural marriages often become strained," Galdikas writes in her book. "Because Pak Bohap and I take equal delight in our children and our roles as parents, and because we have retained our individual identities, our marriage endures."

Most recently Galdikas has been targeted in a new controversy over her rehabilitation work. The primary charge is that she has kept nearly 100 orphaned orangutans at her home illegally and in poor conditions, and that many have died there of various communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis and hepatitis. Other allegations center on her alleged obsessiveness and mistreatment of her research assistants and staffers. Galdikas denies the charges, calling them a "smear campaign" conducted by jealous rivals, namely Willie Smits, whom she says "wants to become the undisputed king of the rain forest in Borneo."

Despite the dispute, Galdikas remains passionate about her life's work with the red apes, whom she calls gentle, noble creatures with great intelligence. "Looking into the calm, unblinking eyes of an orangutan we see, as through a series of mirrors, not only the image of our own creation but also a reflection of our own souls and an Eden that once was ours," she writes at the close of Reflections of Eden. "And on occasion, fleetingly, just for a nanosecond, but with an intensity that is shocking in its profoundness, we recognize that there is no separation between ourselves and nature. We are allowed to see the eyes of God."


Galdikas, Biruté M.G. Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1995. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1995.

Hammer, Joshua. "A Typhoon in a Rain-Forest Eden," in Newsweek. Vol. 131, no. 22. June 1, 1998, pp. 58–60.

Montgomery, Sy. Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

People Weekly. January 16, 1989.

suggested reading:

Spalding, Linda. A Dark Place in the Jungle. NC: Algonquin Books, 1999.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts.