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Birute Galdikas: Born to be wild

Posted by on December 11, 2014

By Gabriele Butkute, Student Enterprise & Marketing Intern at London Metropolitan University

People who live in the western countries rarely think about rainforests, orangutans, or the fact that they are going extinct, it just feels too far away. Well, unless they are sitting in comfortable IMAX cinema chairs munching popcorn and watching a documentary.

Image by Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

Dr Birute Galdikas. Image by Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

Renowned scientist and primatologist, Dr Birute Galdikas was featured in the film Born to be Wild, where she spoke about her passion for orangutans and Borneo rainforest and her efforts to keep them safe.

Dr Galdikas was born in Germany in 1946, when her parents were en route to Canada from Lithuania. Having spent her childhood in Canada, she later went on to study at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and zoology, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology.

Birute approached anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey to discuss her desire to study orangutans, and eventually, three years later, he found the funding to facilitate her research in Borneo, Indonesia, as he had previously helped both, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in their studies on chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Birute’s goal was to learn more about the origin of human behaviour by studying orangutans. However, the task turned out to be much bigger. She says, “Even though I’m a scientist, the animals I’m studying are going extinct so I’ve had to get involved in political activism.”

Image by chem7

Image by chem7

Her research has provided unprecedented detail about orangutan ecology, social organisation and mating and she has received numerous awards, including the prestigious “Kalpataru” award; the highest honour given by the Republic of Indonesia.

To further support the orangutans Birute and her colleagues set up Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) in 1986, which has now expanded substantially, establishing sister organisations, in Australia, Lithuania, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Palm oil is the world’s biggest threat to free-ranging orangutans. In 2012 OFI launched the Zero Tolerance / No-Kill training programme. It was designed to train 1000 palm oil and paper and pulp workers humane and respectful treatment of orangutans and other wildlife. The courses include talks and workshops, as well as, going into the rainforest and meeting the orangutans. “This is one of the reasons that it is important that people have opportunities to directly observe and be close to endangered wildlife. It engenders feelings and emotions. One can learn facts from a book, but nothing engages people like a close encounter with the animal itself,” says Birute.

Image by Sandra Vallaure

Image by Sandra Vallaure

In addition to the training, OFI also provides educational programs and outreach activities and promotes Bornean rainforest restoration as well as the rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured orangutans. They release about 30 orangutans every year, however, there are 200 living in the care centre at any given time.

Deforestation leaves many orangutans orphaned. They usually spend seven to nine years living closely with their mothers, in order to prepare them for adult life. In addition to deforestation, many primates are sold as pets, which is another of the issues Birute is working on.

Borneo has changed a lot since Birute arrived in Borneo forty years ago; “There was absolutely no television until the 1980’s. What happened because there was no television, is that there were many ceremonies between the local tribes (the Dayaks), many community celebrations that seem to have ceased since television came into the picture. People now have other forms of entertainment. Borneo was a totally different place… the main difference ecologically was that the tropical rainforest was absolutely everywhere.”

“People who really get to know orangutans always fall under their spell. That doesn’t happen so much with chimpanzees for example. I am not comparing but chimpanzees are much more emotional, more human… orangutans sit back and meditate.”

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