A Quest to Save the Orangutan | Science | Smithsonian
The only great ape unique to Asia, orangutans are increasingly rare, with fewer than 50,000 in Borneo. Here, a male named Doyok moves through a reserve. (Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers)

A Quest to Save the Orangutan

Birute Mary Galdikas has devoted her life to saving the great ape. But the orangutan faces its greatest threat yet

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Darkness is fast approaching at Camp Leakey, the outpost in a Borneo forest that Biruté Mary Galdikas created almost 40 years ago to study orangutans. The scientist stands on the porch of her weathered bungalow and announces, "It's party time!"

There will be no gin and tonics at this happy hour in the wilds of Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province. Mugs of lukewarm coffee will have to do. Yes, there's food. But the cardboard boxes of mangoes, guavas and durians—a fleshy tropical fruit with a famously foul smell—are not for us humans.

"Oh, there's Kusasi!" Galdikas says, greeting a large orangutan with soulful brown eyes as he emerges from the luxuriant rain forest surrounding the camp. Kusasi stomps onto the porch, reaches into a box of mangoes and carries away three in each powerful hand. Kusasi was Camp Leakey's dominant male until a rival named Tom took charge several years ago. But Kusasi, who weighs in at 300 pounds, can still turn aggressive when he needs to.

"And Princess!" Galdikas says, as another "orang"—noticeably smaller than Kusasi but every bit as imposing, especially to a newcomer like me—steps out of the bush. "Now Princess is really smart," she says. "It takes Princess a while, but if you give her the key she can actually unlock the door to my house."

"And Sampson! And Thomas!" Galdikas smiles as these juvenile males bare their teeth and roll around in the dirt, fighting. They are fighting, right? "Noooo, they're just playing," Galdikas tells me. "They are just duplicating how adult males fight. Sampson makes wonderful play faces, doesn't he?"

No Camp Leakey party would be complete without Tom, the reigning alpha male and Thomas' older brother. Tom helps himself to an entire box of mangoes, reminding Kusasi who's boss. Tom bit Kusasi severely and took control, Galdikas tells me, nodding toward Tom and whispering as if Kusasi might be listening. "Be careful," she says as the new monarch brushes past me on the porch. "He's in a bad mood!"

And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Tom, Kusasi and the gang leave this riverside camp to resume their mostly solitary lives. Galdikas' mood darkens with the sky. "They don't say goodbye. They just melt away," she says, her eyes a bit moist. "They just fade away like old soldiers."

Galdikas, 64, has been living among orangutans since 1971, conducting what has become the world's longest continuous study by one person of a wild mammal. She has done more than anyone to protect orangutans and to help the outside world understand them.

Her most chilling fear is that these exotic creatures with long arms, reddish brown hair and DNA that is 97 percent the same as ours will fade into oblivion. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I just clutch my head because the situation is so catastrophic," Galdikas says in a quiet, urgent voice. "I mean, we're right at the edge of extinction."

Galdikas has been sounding the "e" word for decades while battling loggers, poachers, gold miners and other intruders into the orangutans' habitat. And now a new foe is posing the most serious threat yet to Asia's great orange apes. Corporations and plantations are rapidly destroying rain forests to plant oil palms, which produce a highly lucrative crop. "Words cannot describe what palm oil companies have done to drive orangutans and other wildlife to near-extinction," Galdikas says. "It's simply horrific."

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