The Current

How Canadian Biruté Galdikas uncovered the secret life of orangutans

In 1971, a young Canadian scientist named Biruté Galdikas waded into the rainforests of Borneo, Indonesia, for the first time. Her mission? To study orangutans, then one of the least understood apes in the world.

When the anthropologist expressed plans to go Indonesian Borneo in 1971, she was met with skepticism and doubt

In 1971, Canadian anthropologist Biruté Galdikas travelled to Indonesian Borneo to research orangutans, then one of the world's least understood great apes.

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When Canadian anthropologist Biruté Galdikas arrived at the Tanjung Puting Reserve in Indonesian Borneo in 1971, she had one goal in mind: to find and research orangutans.

"I got skepticism. I got doubt. People said it couldn't be done," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

There was a reason for doubt. At the time, the orangutan was the least understood of the great apes, and Indonesian Borneo was uncharted territory due to a lack of transportation and communication services.

Not even the Indonesian Embassy in the United States could help her.

"Nobody had ever been there. Nobody knew anybody who had been there," she said. "So it was really a voyage into terra incognita."

Then just 25 years old, Galdikas wasn't the first person to attempt to study orangutans, but she was by far the most successful. Through decades of research, Galdikas greatly expanded the scientific knowledge of orangutans, from their behaviour to their diet.

"I still feel extraordinarily fortunate that God graced me with years in the forest [with orangutans]," she said. 

An adult male Bornean orangutan, pictured here in Tanjung Puting National Park, Borneo, Indonesia. (Richard Quinn)

Habituating orangutans

The first time Galdikas saw an orangutan, it was by a river's edge.

"We were in a boat and the orangutan immediately moved away from the river, squeaked — she didn't throw any branches, but she moved away very rapidly," she said.

The interaction only lasted about a minute, but Galdikas was hooked. She subsequently tracked down other orangutans in the area, and she'd try to follow them as they went about their lives.

It wasn't easy initially. Wild orangutans are not used to humans, and when they spotted Galdikas, they often moved away as quickly as they could. 

Galdikas said it took years for some wild orangutans to become accustomed to her presence.

"There was an older female [orangutan] named Priscilla. It took me 15 years to habituate her," she said. "When she saw me, she didn't hiss, squeak, break off and throw branches [and] try to run away."

She Walks With Apes: Biruté Galdikas

3 years ago
Duration 0:27
This Canadian researcher went into the deepest jungles of Borneo to live among the orangutans as one of the 'Trimates.' Her love for the apes stemmed from her eagerness to understand humans and where we came from.

Though previous researchers didn't have such patience, Galdikas said she built up "an orangutan sense of time" — not to hurry, but to work slowly, like an orangutan. She believes this practice helped her develop the right mindset to work as patiently as possible.

Soon, the orangutans saw Galdikas as unthreatening as "a tree stump or log on the forest floor," and that helped her unlock their secrets.

"Sometimes they forgot that I was there," she said.

The secrets of the orangutan

The first wild orangutan to become totally habituated to Galdikas was one she called Nick, an adult male orangutan. Galdikas said her crew observed Nick day after day for a year and a half.

It's thanks to Nick that Galdikas learned that male orangutans are "true loners."

"Because of Nick, we learnt the orangutan adult males ... avoid each other," she said. "So much so that in 50 years, I have seen [just] two adult male orangutans meet in the absence of proceptive females, those females who want to mate." 

One of the first orangutans to get habituated was an adult male called Nick, who was similar to the adult male orangutan in this picture. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

This is unique when compared to other apes like chimpanzees and gorillas, which are social animals.

"What you have with orangutans is you have matrilines. These matrilines are very closely related," she said. "And then you have roaming males, and so the males are the ones who provide genetic diversity. 

As Galdikas studied more orangutans, she also found that orangutans develop at a similar pace to humans. She said wild females could have their first offspring when they're between 15 and 17 years old, and a wild male might not become fully mature until he's 18 or 19 years old.

Some male Sumatran orangutans don't fully mature until their early 30s, according to Galdikas.

She added that orangutans also live long lives, and hypothesizes that some orangutans have even lived into their 70s.

"Time is extended. Their life stages are extended," she said. 

A Sumatran orangutan. Galdikas says some male Sumatran orangutans don't sexually mature until their 30s. (Joshua Paul/Associated Press)

Fighting deforestation

The longer she spent with orangutans, the more Galdikas learned about their habits — and the effects of deforestation on their lives. 

Galdikas said deforestation, and the creation of plantations in orangutan habitats, is having a horrific repercussion on wild orangutan populations.

"The first 20 years of my research, in a week, you might have three different adult males come to the study area," she said.  "That's stopped. Now, if we see a strange male once or twice a year, we're fortunate."

But Galdikas remains optimistic, and she's doing everything she can to help the apes she spent so much of her life studying. 

I still feel extraordinarily fortunate that God graced me with years in the forest [with orangutans].-Biruté Galdikas

She said her crew has helped plant more than 400,000 native trees since 2017, and she estimates 90 per cent of them have survived until today.

"Because I'm on the ground, I do have some confidence that maybe we will be able to rescue some orangutan habitat and orangutans will not go extinct as species in the wild," she said.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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