Biruté Galdika: The Champion of Orangutans

This post is an installment in our "Meet a Scientist" Series

A young girl, daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, worked her entire life to become a primatologist. She grew up to study orangutans in the depths of Indonesian forests and brought an unprecedented level of understanding to this elusive, at the time understudied, primate.

Biruté Galdika. Photo courtesy of By Simon Fraser University - University Communications/Creative Commons.

Biruté Galdika. Photo courtesy of By Simon Fraser University - University Communications/Creative Commons.

This young woman was Biruté Galdikas. She was the third of paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey’s famous primatologist mentees. Biruté is one of three women called the “Trimates,” three women studying primates, all trained by Leakey. The other two Trimates are Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.  Despite being the least known of the three women, Galdikas made a significant mark on the world. What began as an interest sparked by a popular children’s book led Biruté to become a renowned expert and advocate for the endangered orangutan species.


A Curious Girl and a Curious George

Biruté Galdika was born at the end of World War II in Germany while her family traveled from Lithuania to Canada. As a little girl, Galdika settled on her career path by the time she was in second grade. Inspired by Curious George, she decided she would be an explorer and she followed that dream her entire life.

Royce Hall, UCLA. Photo courtesy of Prayitno/Creative Commons.

Royce Hall, UCLA. Photo courtesy of Prayitno/Creative Commons.

She spent her childhood in Canada and even enrolled in and completed one year at the University of British Columbia before her family moved to the United States. At that point, she transferred to the University of California Los Angeles and studied zoology and psychology, finishing her studies in 1966. Three years later, she finished her Masters in anthropology and went on to complete her PhD.

Goodall and Fossey did not come from an academic zoology background, but instead met Leakey by chance during their first trips to Africa. Galdikas’ experience was different. She already knew about both Goodall and Fossey and their journeys. While Goodall and Fossey started their careers in the field, Galdikas’ went to school with hopes of following in their footsteps.

Galdika met Leakey while she was still in graduate school. One day, she approached her hero and expressed her interest in studying orangutans, hoping he would mentor her as he had for the other two women. Initially, he was not interested but she convinced him it was worth it. After 3 more years, Leakey managed to secure funding to support Birutés’ orangutan study and set her off on her journey to Indonesia.

Off to the Depths of the Indonesian Jungle

In 1971, at the age of 25 years old, Biruté Galdika, and her then husband, Ron Brindamour, moved to the Tanjung Puting Reserve in Indonesian Borneo. Many discouraged Biruté against this mission because they believed orangutans were too difficult to study. Unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, orangutans were more private, lived deep in swamp habitats and spent a great deal of time up high in the trees. Galdikas’ resolve, however, did not waiver.

Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Borneo. Photo courtesy of Nanosanchez/Creative Commons.

Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Borneo. Photo courtesy of Nanosanchez/Creative Commons.

She and her husband set up Camp Leakey, their main site, named after her mentor. It began as merely two humble huts but over the years, grew into a large base. The Camp grew to become a world hub for orangutan research and rehabilitation. The camp ultimately trained dozens of students from Indonesia and North America to study orangutans.

When Biruté began, the world believed orangutans were antisocial. Galdikas proved this was not entirely accurate. She realized that young orangutans are actually fairly social but become more unsociable as they grew up. Only the adult males, she noticed, were really solitary. She also observed that some orangutan families migrated while others settle down in one location. She was the first to document the long interval between orangutan pregnancies, which is an impressive 7.7 years in Tanjung Puting. Watching their eating habits, she noted over 400 different foods incorporated into their diet. Biruté Galdikas’ 40 year study of orangutans in Tanjung Puting is historic, both because of the discoveries she made and because of its length. Her work constitutes the longest continuous study of one animal species conducted by one principle investigator.

Orangutans. Photo courtesy of Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE/Creative Commons.

Orangutans. Photo courtesy of Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE/Creative Commons.

It was in Tanjung Puting that she also first met her second husband, Pak Bohap, a Dayak chief working at Camp Leakey. Though she was attracted to him right away, she initially avoided him because she was still married to her first husband. However, she and Brindamour divorced in 1979. Biruté and Brindamour had one child together, a son named Binti, who spent his childhood living with his parents in Indonesian Borneo, befriending orangutans. Unfortunately, since he did not have a chance to interact with children his own age, he began to act more and more like an orangutan, which worried his parents. They ultimately decided it was better for Binti to live with his father, away from camp. A few years later, Biruté married Pak and they had a daughter and son together.

A decade after she began, Biruté was deeply active in orangutan studies and conservation. In 1986, she and Pak founded the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), based in Los Angeles. They also expanded their international efforts by working with others to organize sister organizations in Australia, Indonesia and the United Kingdom.

The Orangutan Foundation International

The goal of the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) was to support the work that Galdikas and others conducted at Camp Leakey as part of the Orangutan Research and Conservation Project. Initially, Birutés’ mainly focused on local orangutans and forest conservation in Indonesia, where there were many battles to fight. Government officials often kept the primates as pets and both poachers and illegal loggers were common. Their original program worked with the Indonesian authorities to properly patrol Tanjung Puting National Park, rescue and rehabilitate captured orangutans and promote conservation efforts.

As Galdikas and her team continued to grow their efforts, they gained more international and mainstream attention. OFI helped promote and support these efforts on a wider scale. It not only spurred research and education efforts, but also conservation and forest protection. The goal was, and still is, to ensure the survival of biologically viable orangutans. Between the negative impact of humans on orangutan habitats and orangutans naturally long breeding intervals, the species was and still is on the brink of extinction.


Despite the noble efforts of Camp Leakey, some controversy originally swirled around the institution in the 1970s and 1980s. In the beginning, the organization took in orphaned orangutans in attempts to rehabilitate them and then set them back into the wild. However, many worried that the program had some fatal flaws. Abandoned animals tended to be difficult to work with. This often placed staffers and guests of Camp Leakey in danger when orangutans lashed out.

In addition to safety concerns, others wondered if these rehabilitated orangutans would behave like their “wild” counterparts; what if their behavior was too different from their counterparts who rarely interacted with humans? Furthermore, animals in captivity could spread diseases into the native orangutan populations in the wild upon release. With all of these concerns clouding the rehabilitation efforts, the program was stopped. Now, ex-captive orangutans are rescued and brought to the Orangutan Care Center outside of Tanjung Putting.

With all of her conservation efforts and lobbying the Indonesian government to help protect parks and forests, Galdikas also made many enemies. She was harassed, threatened and even kidnapped by her opponents. None of this, however, stopped her fight.

The Professor, the Conservationist

Riau palm oil concession. Photo courtesy of Hayden/Creative Commons.

Riau palm oil concession. Photo courtesy of Hayden/Creative Commons.

Unfortunately, even after Birutés’ 40 years of fighting for orangutans, the species is still in danger of extinction. Their habitats are still being destroyed. The primary enemy now are palm oil plantations surrounding the area. The plantations not only ruin the orangutans’ home but limit their ability to travel and migrate. General deforestation, hunting and illegal animal trading also contribute to the plight of this species.

Over the years, Biruté made great strides in trying to rescue these majestic creatures. In 1996, a special decree appointed her as senior advisor on orangutan issues to the Indonesian Mister of Forestry. The following year she won the Kalpararu Award. This is the highest honor bestowed for environmental efforts by Indonesia. The honor was even greater because Galdikas was the only non-Indonesian to win the award and was also one of the first women recipients. At the turn of the century, she gained Indonesian citizenship.

Over the span of her career, Galdikas published scientific articles, was on the cover of National Geographic, and wrote several books, including the memoir, Reflections of Eden in 1996 recounting her initial adventures from 1971 onward. More recently in 2011 she worked on the documentary, Born to Be Wild, that highlighted orphaned orangutans and elephants and the humans that work to save them.

These days, Biruté Galdikas spends half of her time in Indonesia and half in North America. She is a full professor at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and professor extraordinaire at the Universitas Nasional in Jakarta. All the while, she continues to push forth serious conservation efforts both in Indonesia and around the world. She rightfully argues that the orangutans are nowhere near being safe from extinction. As long as orangutans and other wild species are in danger, Biruté plans to continue to be their champion for change.




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