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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According to the Nature Conservancy, forest loss in Indonesia has contributed to the death of some 3,000 orangutans a year over the past three decades. All told, the world's fourth most populous nation is losing about 4.6 million acres of forest every year, an area almost as large as New Jersey. A 2007 United Nations Environment Programme report, "The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency," concluded that palm oil plantations are the primary cause of rain forest loss in Indonesia and Malaysia—the largest producers of palm oil and the only countries in the world where wild orangutans can still be found. Between 1967 and 2000, Indonesia's palm oil plantation acreage increased tenfold as world demand for this commodity soared; it has almost doubled in this decade.

With 18 million acres under cultivation in Indonesia and about as much in Malaysia, palm oil has become the world's number one vegetable oil. The easy-to-grow ingredient is found in shampoos, toothpaste, cosmetics, margarine, chocolate bars and all manner of snacks and processed foods. Global sales are expected only to increase as demand for biofuels, which can be manufactured with palm oil, soars in the coming years.

Palm oil companies don't see themselves as the bad guys, of course. Singapore-based Wilmar International Ltd., one of the world's largest producers, says it is "committed to ensuring the conservation of rare, threatened and endangered species." The companies point out that they provide employment for millions of people in the developing world (the oil palm tree is also grown in Africa and South America), while producing a shelf-stable cooking oil free of trans fats. As fuel, palm oil does not contribute as much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere as fossil fuels, although there is a furious debate over whether the carbon dioxide absorbed by the palm trees makes up for the greenhouse gases dispersed into the atmosphere when rain forests are burned and plowed to create plantations.

Nowhere is the clash between planters and conservationists more important than in Borneo, an island divided into Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Its rain forests are among the most ecologically diverse in the world, with about 15,000 types of plants, more than 600 species of birds and an animal population that also includes the clouded leopard and pygmy elephant. "Camp Leakey still looks like a primeval Eden," Galdikas says. "It's magical." Her camp is in Tanjung Puting National Park, a one-million-acre reserve managed by the Indonesian government with help from her Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). But the habitat is not fully protected. "If you go eight kilometers north [of the camp], you come into massive palm oil plantations," she says. "They go on forever, hundreds of kilometers."

So far, in a bid to outmaneuver oil palm growers, Galdikas' OFI has purchased several hundred acres of peat swamp forest and partnered with a Dayak village to manage 1,000 more. And during my five days in Kalimantan, she promises to show me the fruits of her work not only as a scientist and conservationist but as a swampland investor as well. Having grown up in Miami, I can't help but think of the old line, "If you believe that, I've got some swampland in Florida to sell you," implying the stuff is utterly worthless. In Borneo, I learn, swampland is coveted.

Biruté Mary Galdikas wasn't looking to become a real estate magnate when she arrived on the island four decades ago to study orangutans. She had earned a master's degree in anthropology at UCLA (a PhD would follow). Her research in Borneo was encouraged by legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, whose excavations with his wife, Mary, in East Africa unearthed some of the most important fossils and stone tools of our hominid ancestors. (Leakey also mentored chimp researcher Jane Goodall and gorilla researcher Dian Fossey; he called them the "trimates.")

The Borneo that greeted Galdikas and her then-husband, photographer Rod Brindamour, was one of the most isolated and mysterious places on earth, an island where headhunting was part of the collective memory of local tribes.

To locals, Galdikas was very much an oddity herself. "I started crying the first time I saw Biruté because she looked so strange. She was the first Westerner I'd ever seen!" says Cecep, Camp Leakey's information officer, who was a boy of 3 when he first glimpsed Galdikas 32 years ago. Cecep, who, like many Indonesians, goes by a single name, says he stopped crying only after his mother assured him she was not a hunter: "She's come here to help us."

The daughter of Lithuanians who met as refugees in Germany and immigrated first to Canada, then the United States, Galdikas has paid dearly for the life she has chosen. She has endured death threats, near-fatal illnesses and bone-chilling encounters with wild animals. She and Brindamour separated in 1979, and their son, Binti, joined his father in Canada when he was 3 years old. Both parents had worried that Binti was not being properly socialized in Borneo because his best friends were, well, orangutans. Galdikas married a Dayak chief named Pak Bohap and they had two children, Jane and Fred, who spent little time in Indonesia once they were teenagers. "So this hasn't been easy," she says.

Still, she doesn't seem to have many regrets. "To me, a lot of my experiences with orangutans have the overtones of epiphanies, almost religious experiences," she says with a far-off gaze. "Certainly when you are in the forest by yourself it's like being in a parallel universe that most people don't experience."


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