By 1971, when a 24 year old anthropology student by the name of Birute Galdikas set foot in the wilds of Borneo to study the largely unknown behavior and social structure of wild orangutans, field primatology was entering its second decade of Outsider triumph. Anthropologist Louis Leakey had gambled twice, with Jane Goodall in 1960, and again with Dian Fossey in 1966, on the premise that women inexperienced in the rigid and restrictive methods of academic fieldwork might uncover more about animal behavior than the by-the-book products of university thinking. The work done by Goodall and Fossey in the field went beyond Leakey’s wildest notions of success, as Goodall documented tool use and meat consumption among chimpanzees while Fossey’s habituation techniques with gorillas allowed for unprecedented proximity to their complex social life.
Could lightning possibly strike thrice?
The odds weren’t great – orangutans presented notoriously great obstacles to observation not encountered with the other great apes. As opposed to chimpanzees and gorillas, who tend to travel in groups held together by complicated sets of behaviors and social protocols, orangutans were considered to be nomadic loners, which made them all but impervious to the techniques of traditional field studies. A prospective orangutan researcher, it was believed, could never observe multiple individuals at once, and could never hope to keep in touch with one nomadic individual over a scientifically important enough amount of time to possibly get data of any use.
Studying orangutans seemed a one-way ticket to frustration and burnout, and when Leakey was approached by a young UCLA student who knew that her goal in life was to study the great red apes, he was as impressed by her resolve as he was apprehensive about her choice. He tried initially to shunt her towards bonobo studies. More closely related to chimpanzees and more easily accessible, the chances for success seemed greater with bonobos, but Galdikas had set her mind upon orangutans, and as the world would come to discover, material facts had a way of withering before the intensity of her resolve.
It is tempting to assign the provenance of that resolve to her family, who possessed a world-wise practicality wed to a sense of globally-scaled opportunity. Hailing from Lithuania, they emigrated one step ahead of the Soviet Union’s post World War II inhaling of their native land and, noticing that Canadian immigration quotas were not as restrictive as those in the United States, took their chance and moved to a mining town in Quebec before ultimately settling in Toronto. Here, Galdikas, who had been born in 1946 in Germany while her family was waiting for their emigration to clear, developed a two-pronged fascination, first with the forests that invited her to ramble through their near vastness, and second for the teeming world of human history and natural wonders available at the local library.
She alternated books about ancient cultures with long roams through wild places, but when adults asked her about her ambitions, she asked what the highest academic degree was and, upon hearing it was a PhD, said that her goal was to get one of those. She enrolled at the University of British Columbia in 1963 when she was just seventeen and found there a dusty atmosphere of lifeless academic erudition in the best 19th century tradition. Fortunately, her family were shortly thereafter lured to tales of Californian easy prosperity, and by 1965 Galdikas was enrolled at UCLA, where informality reigned and new ideas were exploding forth seemingly from every classroom. She sampled psychology, anthropology, and zoology on her way to a BA in psychology in 1966 and a Master’s in anthropology in 1969.
All the while she had harbored a dream of studying orangutans in the wild, but her professors actively discouraged her, citing the failure of previous students to obtain meaningful information about the notoriously solitary primates. As far as academia was concerned, orangutans were Off The Menu. Had Galdikas entered the university a decade earlier, that might have well been that, but the examples of Leakey, Goodall, and Fossey showed that there were other ways of studying animals in the field than those offered by academic departments. And so, when Louis Leakey himself came to lecture at UCLA, she approached him after his talk and let him know of her intention to study orangutans. She had never done any field work in primatology. Her areas of study were anthropology and psychology. She was intending to study an animal that had routinely broken the will of trained researchers.
No sponsor in their right mind would have considered her offer.
Leakey, of course, said yes.
A Leakey Yes, however, was not an instant ticket to Borneo, one of only two islands where orangutans could be found. Leakey had to first nail down the funding and logistics for the expedition, a task made all the more difficult by his failing health (he would in fact die within a year of sending Galdikas to Borneo). Galdikas had married Rod Brindamour, a rugged and rebellious motorcycle riding high school dropout, during college, and the two of them had a vision of heading straightaway to the wilds, she to study orangutans and he to photograph them. Instead, they had to wait two long years for the proper resources to be secured, finally arriving in Borneo in 1971.
Their main camp was a thatch roof hut in the middle of Tanjung Puting National Park, a game reserve irregularly protected by the Indonesian forestry department. Dubbing the location Camp Leakey, Biruté and Rod set about what had quickly become a dual mission: to study wild orangutans, and to rehabilitate domesticated ones. Arriving in Jakarta, they were quickly let into the open secret of Indonesia’s pet orangutan fad. Blithely unconcerned with how many orangutans were slaughtered in order to procure an orangutan infant, and heedless of the difficulties that would come when their adorable red furball grew up into a full adult, many Indonesian families took it as a sign of status to own their very own baby orangutan. Kept in cages, their physical and psychological needs unheeded, such infants rarely survived to maturity. Owning an orangutan was illegal, but local officials didn’t seem to care to enforce the law of the land. Biruté and Rod resolved to compel enforcement of the law, and to provide the orangutans with a safe haven, once freed.
The task of observing orangutans in Borneo is difficult enough on one’s own – slogging through swamps up to your chest in leech-infested waters to just barely keep in contact with the primates who are moving effortlessly, some might say mockingly, through the trees above. But doing it while one or two orangutan infants are holding onto you for dear life raises the difficulty level another order of magnitude. Biruté and Rod were confronted with the entire battery of tropical snares and impediments – the punishing heat and humidity, the fire ants, the mosquitoes, malaria, the wide variety of venomous snakes that can not be kept out of a thatched roof hut, the infant orangutans who refuse to sleep anywhere but in your bed and spend the night urinating and defecating on you, the tropical sores and ulcers that break out all over your body, and any number of tropical diseases for which there are no names in the Western canon.
“Galdikas had set her mind upon orangutans, and as the world would come to discover, material facts had a way of withering before the intensity of her resolve.”
It was punishing, solitary work. The orangutan infants adopted Biruté as their full fledged mother and would not tolerate removal from her person, throwing screaming destructive fits whenever somebody attempted to relieve her of her charges for long enough to allow her to change clothes, or clean herself, or use the restroom (such as it was). Disease, fatigue, malnourishment, all combined to make these early years exercises in pure dedication. But within and between all the suffering there was the research, the steady and addictive excitement of learning the orangutans’ world. She discovered that while, yes, adult males tend to migrate and keep to themselves, adolescents are downright gregarious, while mothers and daughters spend years traveling together, and maintain some degree of contact throughout a lifetime.
Yes, orangutans aren’t constantly grooming each other and jockeying for position in micro-acts of social alliance like chimps, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a social sense. Rather, as they don’t form large packs that move through the forest together, they have very sensibly jettisoned all of the behaviors required for such an ultra-social arrangement, opting instead for a simpler, calmer approach to relationships that doesn’t require constant adjustment and readjustment through mutual rituals. She called orangutans “semi-social”: able to form deep relationships with other orangutans, but also able to spend long stretches of time utterly alone.
Prior to Galdikas’s research, orangutans had been maligned as food-obsessed and intellectually on the slow side. Because they spent most of their time moving through the forest searching for food instead of exhibiting all the interesting behaviors documented by a Goodall or a Fossey, their intellectual capacity tended to be denigrated. All stomach, no brain. What Galdikas found, however, was a deep botanical and spatial genius entirely appropriate to the challenges of living in the Bornean tropical jungle. She documented over 400 types of fruit, plant, bark, and leaf that the orangutans recognized as part of their botanical repertoire, and that they had a mental map of where each type of food was to be found, and tests for determining when it all was safe to eat. Seeing that one type of fruit was at the perfect stage of ripeness, an orangutan would make a beeline for other trees of that type in the forest, calling on deep spatial memories to guide them with unerring precision.
As she found that studying females was not only possible (females being largely non-migratory), but deeply rewarding in terms of the social data she obtained, Galdikas’s plans to remain in the forest stretched from months to years and when the government declared that Tanjung Puting would be protected from foresting so long as she remained within it, the choice was clear: she would remain indefinitely.
Her husband, meanwhile, was quietly brimming over with resentment. Initially an avid and physically courageous protector of the forest, once its status was secured by government decree, he felt less and less necessary to the functioning of the camp. As a photographer, his pictures of orangutans brought in virtually no income. Biruté’s observations of orangutans allowed her to earn a PhD, while every passing year saw Rod one year older but with less formal education than the young Camp volunteers he was training. Worn down by seven and a half years of disease and fatigue, perpetually embarrassed by his lack of an actual paying job, and resenting the work he put in to help Biruté gain her PhD while he still hadn’t had a chance to get his own degree, he began an affair with their son’s Indonesian caregiver, and asked ultimately for a divorce that would allow him to return to the United States and work with the computers he was fascinated by.
It was one of those separations that was the best possible thing for all involved. Within two years, Biruté married a native Dayak farmer named Pak Bohap and their two children grew up in a world full of the traditional Indonesian village life of their father, the orangutan research of their mother, and the North American hustle and bustle of their mother’s family. Rod got his long delayed education and his work with the machines he adored, and Biruté got to stay with her orangutans, documenting their comings and goings over the course of three full decades while Camp Leakey, which began as a worn out hut crammed with Biruté, her husband, and two native helpers, grew into a research center that served as the world’s premiere point of contact with the world of the orangutans.
A world leader in the cause of orangutan conservation and rehabilitation, as a scientist her work lifted the veil on a species all but given up by the professional academic world. The gregariousness of adolescents, the nature of the weaning process, the eight year long cycle between births, the differing nature of the mother-daughter as compared to the mother-son dynamic, the ability of males to recognize the long calls of other males in the forest and to either run away from or challenge the intruder based on hierarchy, the occasional use of makeshift tools, and the massive spatial, botanical, and social memory of orangutans – these were all things discovered by this one woman who refused to let leech or malaria, pregnancy or bog, downpour or viper, get between her and the work she had set for herself. She was not the first to bring habituation to the primate kingdom, like Goodall, nor did she come to a tragic but memorable end, like Fossey, but in terms of guts and grit, the determination to make the body do the bidding of the mind, there are none to equal Biruté M.F. Galdikas.
Lead image via Wikimedia, creative commons license
FURTHER READING: In 1996, Galdikas published her memoirs, Reflections of Eden, detailing the first two decades of her orangutan research, and in its pages are keen portraits of some of the stars of mid century primatology and anthropology, including Louis and Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall, and some astonishing anecdotes of conversations with Dian Fossey. Most importantly, her portrayal of the semi-sociality of orangutans makes our common ancestry radiantly clear. Their stoic isolation makes sense through her words, and the peril they face as their habitats face destruction becomes viscerally real.