Biruté Galdikas is a famous primatologist that you’ve probably never heard of

This Canadian scientist and educator has spent nearly 50 years studying orangutans in the wild Holly McNeill

With the mention of primates and those who have dedicated their lives to the study of them, people often think of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. But neither of these women can be credited with operating the longest continuous study by one principal investigator of any wild mammal in the world.

That honour goes to Biruté Galdikas, a Canadian scientist, conservationist and educator who is surprisingly less known than her fellow Trimates, Goodall and Fossey. She Walks with Apes, a new documentary from The Nature of Things, tells the story of the Trimates and the next generation of women who were inspired to live with the great apes.

Ruth Linsky, one young scientist featured in the film, is an Alberta native who studied biology, ecology and evolution at Simon Fraser University in B.C., where Galdikas teaches. Linsky, Gladikas’s current mentee, hadn’t heard of the renowned primatologist until a friend recommended taking one of her courses.

“Growing up, I saw Gorillas in the Mist, so I knew about Dian Fossey,” Linsky says, “and Jane Goodall is just, like, a household name. [But] I didn’t even know about Dr. Galdikas until I met her at Simon Fraser,” she remembers. “I looked [her] up and was just blown away that this lady was a professor at the school, and I had no idea.”

Galdikas, a living legend

Biruté Galdikas was born en route to Canada from her parents’ homeland, Lithuania, and raised in Toronto. She discovered her love of animals and adventure at a young age after reading Curious George, and dreamed about becoming an explorer.

She went on to study at the University of British Columbia and then, after her family moved to the United States, UCLA. There, Galdikas studied psychology, zoology and anthropology, and met Louis Leakey, a famed paleoanthropologist who had worked with Fossey and Goodall to enable them to study apes in the wild.

Galdikas had been told by professors and peers that it would be impossible to study wild orangutans because they were elusive and lived almost exclusively in habitats that were swampy and remote, and therefore difficult for humans to navigate. But she was determined, and with financial help from Leakey, she headed to Borneo in Indonesia.

She established Camp Leakey in 1971, and it now functions as a base for research scientists, students, staff members and park rangers.

Galdikas talks about her love of orangutans

Galdikas was the first to observe that orangutans were fruit eaters, and she has since detailed more than 400 types of food they consume in the wild. She also documented the long orangutan birth interval, learning that orangutan mothers can spend more than seven years caring for their young at Tanjung Puting, the national park where she observed their behaviour.

As she worked, Galdikas noted how rapidly the orangutans were losing their habitat because of deforestation. An alarming number of orphaned orangutans were being sold as pets after their mothers had been killed on palm oil plantations that encroached on their territory. It's illegal to own orangutans as pets in Indonesia and the babies are often confiscated. So Galdikas set up a reserve with a rehabilitation program, and so far, her team is responsible for the treatment and release of more than 500 wild-born, ex-captive orangutans back into the wild. Through her foundation, Orangutan Foundation International, she’s also raised millions in funds to purchase wild forest and preserve habitat to release her orangutans into.

Baby orangutans get a second chance at life at a Borneo orphanage
Louis Leakey selected three women to study the great apes, they inspire others today

In 1997, Galdikas received Indonesia’s Hero for the Earth Award, the country’s highest honour for outstanding environmental leadership; she was the only non-Indonesian and one of the first women ever to win.

Yet despite accomplishing so much, Galdikas is still far less known than Goodall or Fossey.

The least known of the Trimates

Linsky recalls learning about Galdikas’s many contributions to the study of primatology after sitting down in her classroom: “I remember being blown away by what she’s achieved and what it is that she does … all the time she spent in the field and [with] her organization.”

Linsky was determined to learn all she could from the woman at the front of her class. “I remember looking up books that she talked about,” she says. “She’s just a wealth of knowledge.”

Linsky was so moved that she travelled to Indonesia to work with her mentor as a 24-year-old volunteer and returned years later as a scientist.

Watch Linsky talk about her love for Borneo.

Today, Galdikas spends much of her time in Borneo engaged in research, whereas her Trimate colleague Goodall, Linsky points out, has spent more time trying to raise public awareness. “Jane Goodall spent 300 days of the year travelling and getting her message out there, but Galdikas still focuses on the field operations.”

“I think she is still working in the fields year-round basically,” Linsky says. “She spends a lot of her time just dealing with the local issues in Indonesia and dealing with local politics, and is focused at the rescue centre and at Camp Leakey.”

Galdikas has spent nearly 50 years in the forests of Borneo to date, studying the apes that she is also determined to save from extinction.

“Getting to know her over time has only increased my respect for her, and, you know, she’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met,” Linsky says. For Galdikas, “it has always, 100 per cent, without any kind of question … been about the orangutans.”

Watch She Walks with Apes, on The Nature of Things.

Available on CBC Gem

She Walks with Apes

Nature of Things