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)
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Galdikas and I roar down the inky Lamandau River in a rented speedboat, bound for a release camp where she hopes to check up on some of the more than 400 orangutans she has rescued and set free over the years. "The orangutans at the release site we'll be visiting do attack humans," she warns. "In fact, we had an attack against one of our assistants a few days ago. These orangutans are no longer used to human beings."

But when we arrive at the camp, about an hour from Pangkalan Bun, we encounter only a feverish, emaciated male sitting listlessly beside a tree. "That's Jidan," Galdikas says. "We released him here a year and a half ago, and he looks terrible."

Galdikas instructs some assistants to take Jidan immediately back to the care center. She sighs. "There's never a dull moment here in Borneo," she says. (Veterinarians later found 16 air rifle pellets under Jidan's skin. The circumstances of the attack have not been determined. After a blood transfusion and rest, Jidan recuperated and was returned to the wild.)

On the dock of the release camp, I ask Galdikas if anyone can save the wild orangutan from extinction.

"Well, I've been here almost 40 years, and the situation is: You keep winning battles, but you keep losing the war," she says. "Will we win? Will we succeed?"

Her questions hang in the vaporous jungle air before she breaks her silence. She suggests that while the orangutans' habitat inside Tanjung Puting will likely survive the next 40 years, the forests outside the park will probably be glutted with oil palm plantations and inhospitable to orangs.

Stepping into the speedboat, Biruté Mary Galdikas says she's determined to protect Tom, Kusasi and future generations of her old soldiers. "Here in Borneo," she says softly, "I take things one day at a time."

Bill Brubaker wrote about Haitian art after the earthquake for the September issue of Smithsonian. Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers' photographs of gelada primates ran last year.


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