Upon his arrival in Britain from Kenya in 1919, the future paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey (whose discoveries at the Olduvai Gorge would establish human evolutionary development in Africa) had notified the British government's register of people with a knowledge of rare languages that he was fluent in Swahili. Several years later, when his finals at Cambridge were due, he asked to be examined in Swahili, and after some hesitation the university agreed. Then, one day, he received two letters; one instructing him to report at a certain time and place for a viva-voce examination in Swahili, and the other asking if, at precisely the same time and place, he might be disposed to examine a candidate in Swahili.
Satisfying as that outcome must have been, Leakey might have been even more gratified to learn that the research station named after him -- not in East Africa but in Borneo, by a German woman of Lithuanian origin studying those most distant of hominids, the Orangutans -- is thriving today. The name was given by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, recognized as a leading authority on orangutans. Prior to her field studies of orangutans, scientists knew little about the species.
Biruté Galdikas met Louis Leakey at UCLA c. 1970. Determined to study and understand the world of the elusive "red" ape, Galdikas convinced Leakey to help orchestrate her endeavor, despite his initial doubts. In 1971, Galdikas arrived in one of the world's few remaining wild places, what is now Taman Nasional Tanjung Puting, in Kalimantan, i.e. Indonesian Borneo. Galdikas was thus the third of a trio of women hand-picked by Leakey to study mankind's nearest relatives, the other great apes, in their natural habitats. (Sometimes referred to as Leakey's Angels, or even The Trimates, the other two were Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees, and Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas.) Leakey helped Galdikas initially set up her research camp to conduct field study on orangutans in Borneo, and Galdikas went on to further Leakey's legacy by greatly expanding the scientific knowledge of orangutan behavior, habitat and diet.
When she arrived in Borneo, Galdikas settled into a primitive bark and thatch hut, at a site she dubbed Camp Leakey, near the edge of the Java Sea. Once there, she encountered numerous poachers, legions of leeches, and swarms of carnivorous insects. Yet she persevered through many travails, remaining there for over 30 years while becoming an outspoken advocate for orangutans and the preservation of their rainforest habitat, which is rapidly being devastated by loggers, palm oil plantations, gold miners, and unnatural conflagrations.
Galdikas's conservation efforts have extended well beyond advocacy, largely focusing on rehabilitation of the many orphaned orangutans turned over to her for care. Many of these orphans were once illegal pets, before becoming too smart and difficult for their owners to handle. Galdikas's rehabilitation efforts through Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) also include the preservation of rainforest. Although one Canadian author in the late 1990s was critical of the rehabilitation methods, the ongoing birth of new orangutans among the formerly-rehabilitated adult orangutans at Camp Leakey is part of what makes it the longest continual study of a single species.
From a year 2000 NY Times interview with Dr. Galdikas:
Q. Give us a report on the state of the world's orangutans?
A. They are poised on the edge of extinction. It's that simple. We're still seeing orangutans in the forest; they are coming into captivity in enormous numbers. You just know that there can't be that many left in the wild.
Q. How did the orangutans come to be so threatened?
A. The main factor was that until 1988, Indonesia had a forestry minister who was a real forester. In 1988, he was replaced by a forestry minister who was an agriculturist, a promoter of plantations. That signaled a shift in government policy from selective logging to clear-cutting of the forest. For orangutans, clear-cutting is a policy of extinction. If you selectively log, some animals will survive. But with clear-cutting, the habitat is gone. If that weren't enough, in 1997, there were these horrendous fires that devastated the forests.
Moreover, the last three years have been a period of intense political upheaval: an economic crisis, ethnic strife, student riots, President Suharto's resignation. After President Suharto stepped down in 1998, there was a vacuum of power in the center. Once people in the provinces understood that, some felt they could do whatever they wanted. And what some of them wanted to do was log the forest. So throughout Indonesia, places that had, more or less, been protected, became besieged.
At first, only local loggers came in. When nobody stopped them, the bigger commercial loggers followed. Suddenly, there were no more protected parks.
Q. Is this true too in Kalimantan, Borneo, where you have your research station?
A. Yes, though in the National Park where I work, we're doing what we can. We're trying to set up patrols of local men to go out with park rangers so that when they come across illegal loggers, they don't feel totally intimidated. We're working with the Indonesian government to set up new wildlife reserves at expired logging concessions. And of course, we're doing what we always have: saving wild-born orangutans who've been captured by humans.
Another NY Times article, this one penned by Biruté Galdikas herself articulating her mission, is here. She has written several books about her years with orangutans, such as Reflections Of Eden.
An IMAX movie, titled Born To Be Wild, shows scenes from Camp Leakey, especially of baby orphan orangutans being hand-reared and then referalized. A trailer can be seen here.
Today, Camp Leakey is a collection of a dozen wooden buildings, where researchers from Indonesian and Western universities and local Dayak staff work on rearing orangutan babies, re-introducing them to the rainforest, and studying the populations that remain in the wild.
From the blog of a contemporary researcher:
"Misha's got a rat!" I yell to Tim in my astonishment. The young ape bites off the rat's head and swings it by the tail like a stuffed toy.
Orangutans rarely eat meat, and in this case Misha seems motivated more by curiosity than by appetite. She also occupies herself with the orangutan version of playing house, making a simple nest and practicing the skills of independent living she'll need when Marissa, her mother, one day turns her attention to a newborn.
The pioneering work of Biruté Galdikas suggests that orangutans bear offspring only once every eight years on average—an extremely long interval among mammals.
After a mother gives birth, her baby will cling to her for several years, rarely venturing away from her side, and continue to nurse for about six years. A juvenile sibling may stay with its mother for a few years, as does Emy with mother Ely and her infant.
Emy is learning how to fend for herself since, unlike human mothers, orangutans normally do not provide food for their offspring beyond lactation.
One of my research goals is to try to determine why these periods of juvenile dependency last so long.
On another continent, Dian Fossey, Dr. Galdikas' fellow-Angel, was found murdered in the bedroom of her cabin in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda on Boxing Day, 1985. The last entry in her diary read:
When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.
Fossey's skull had been split by a panga, a kind of machete widely used by poachers; from forensic analysis of the scene, she had been in the act of loading her handgun, but had apparently picked the wrong type of ammunition during the struggle. Fossey's will stated that all her money (including proceeds from the film version of Gorillas in the Mist) should go to finance anti-poaching patrols. However, her mother Kitty Price challenged the will, and won.
The final words of Louis Leakey's book Adam's Ancestors read:
We know from the study of evolution that, again and again, various branches of animal stock have become over-specialized, and that over-specialization has led to their extinction. Present-day Homo sapiens is in many physical respects still very unspecialized− ... But in one thing man, as we know him today, is over-specialized. His brain power is very over-specialized compared to the rest of his physical make-up, and it may well be that this over-specialization will lead, just as surely, to his extinction.