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

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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

A hopeful sign came in 2007 when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono partnered with nongovernmental organizations to launch a ten-year plan to protect the remaining orangutans. Without such protections against deforestation and illegal mining and logging, he predicted, "these majestic creatures will likely face extinction by 2050."

"Some of the palm oil plantations seem to be realizing that there is concern in the world about what they are doing," Galdikas says. "This to me is the best development."

But, Galdikas says, provincial officials in Central Kalimantan have done little to stop palm oil plantations from encroaching on Tanjung Puting. "That's why we're trying to buy as much forest land as we can, so we can actually make sure the palm oil companies can't buy it," she says. "It's absolutely a race against time."

Rain forest is cheap—as little as $200 an acre in recent years if it's far from a town. And Galdikas has a key advantage over the palm oil companies: she is trusted by the Dayak community. "People here respect Dr. Biruté as the scientist who devoted her life to fighting to save the orangutans," says Herry Roustaman, a tour guide who heads the local boatmen's association.

Galdikas takes me to see another prized piece of her real estate portfolio, a private zoo just outside Pangkalan Bun that her foundation bought for $30,000. The purchase was a "two-fer," she says, because it enabled her to preserve ten acres of rain forest and shut down a mismanaged zoo that appalled her. "I bought the zoo so I could release all the animals," she says. "There were no orangutans in this zoo. But there were bearcats, gibbons, a proboscis monkey, even six crocodiles."

A look of disgust creases her face as we inspect a concrete enclosure where a female Malay honey bear named Desi once lived. "Desi was just covered in mange when I first saw her," Galdikas says. "Her paws were all twisted because she tried to escape once and ten men pounced on her and they never treated the paw. They threw food at her and never went in to clean the cage because they were afraid of her. All she had for water was a small cistern with rain water in it, covered with algae. So I said to myself, 'I have to save this bear. This is just inhuman.'"

Galdikas' Borneo operation employs about 200 men and women, including veterinarians, caregivers, security guards, forest rangers, behavioral enrichment specialists (who seek to improve the physical and mental well-being of the captive orangutans), a feeding staff and eight local blind women who take turns holding the orphaned babies 24 hours a day.

"Orangutans like to eat," Galdikas says one morning as she leads two dozen orphaned baby orangutans on a daily romp though the 200-acre care center a few miles outside Pangkalan Bun. "We feed them five times a day at the care center and spend thousands of dollars on mangoes, jackfruits and bananas every month."

About 330 orphaned orangs live at the 13-year-old center, which has its own animal hospital with laboratory, operating room and medical records office. Most are victims of a double whammy; they lost their forest habitat when gold miners, illegal loggers or palm oil companies cleared it. Then their mothers were killed so the babies could be captured and sold as pets. Most came to Galdikas from local authorities. Kiki, a teenager who was paralyzed from the neck down by a disease in 2004, slept on a four-poster bed in an air-conditioned room and was pushed in a pink, blue and orange wheelchair before she died this year.

The juveniles will be released when they are between 8 and 10 years of age, or old enough to avoid being prey for clouded leopards. In addition to the fruits, the youngsters are occasionally given packages of store-bought ramen noodles, which they open with gusto. "If you look closely, you'll see each package has a tiny salt packet attached," says Galdikas. The orangutans carefully open the packets and sprinkle salt on their noodles.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus