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"Forty years ago, are you kidding?" asks Birute Galdikas, the world's foremost expert on orangutans. "No. It never occurred to me that this could happen." As the woman behind the longest continuous study by one principal investigator of any wild mammal in the world, Galdikas taught us practically everything we know about orangutans. She never thought she would be learning the ways in which they are fast becoming extinct.
Galdikas is 64 now. Sitting at her home in Los Angeles, she turns her mind to the past. While a graduate student at UCLA in the late 1960s, Galdikas met paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who funded her studies and sent her out into the wild as he did with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. "Leakey's Angels," the three women are called: Goodall with her chimpanzees, Fossey with her gorillas, Galdikas with her orangutans.
At the time, orangutans were unknown. It was why she chose them.
The first time she saw them in the wild, she felt she was living a dream. She was 25, newly arrived in Borneo. "We knew there were orangutans in the forest. By my second day there, we saw some. But they were on the edge of a deep swamp, so we couldn't follow them." They mapped out a grid and systematically, painstakingly walked it. Alone in the forest, Galdikas and her then-husband, Rod Brindamour, lived in a bark-walled hut with no telephone and more than a few leeches. Every mosquito bite turned into a festering tropical ulcer. Their cook left. So they ate rice and sardines every day, boiled on an open fire. Their clothes were always wet, and they tried hopelessly to dry them over the flames.
"Rod's jeans caught on fire," she remembers, smiling. "A leg burned off. And we only had two pairs of clothes each. He had to walk around like that."
Pretty soon, orangutans had moved in with them in their hut and were slowly tearing it apart, bit by bit. Galdikas lived that way for years.
Then things got bad. In the 1990s it became obvious that palm oil was the problem. Palm trees are being harvested and the oil used in many products, including lipstick, soap, shampoo and machine lubricant. This is decimating the orangutans' forest habitat.
"The solution is not to buy palm oil and eat olive oil. But palm oil is so lucrative that it's been said it's just a license to print money."
Indonesia two decades ago was poor and isolated. So poor and isolated that, by comparison, Ghana was a richer country. "But it pulled itself up by the bootstraps in the '80s and '90s and entered the world economy," Galdikas says. Suddenly Indonesia was supplying palm oil and timber to the world.
The orangutan, however, is not a mammal built for globalization. Unlike Goodall's extroverted, gregarious chimps, orangutans are introverts to the core. They mostly hang out alone, eating fruit at the top of trees, though sometimes they hang out with movie stars. Actress Julia Roberts went to Indonesia to film the documentary In the Wild with Galdikas. At the wrap party, Roberts suggested that the only reason Galdikas isn't a household name like Goodall or Fossey is because of her name.
Galdikas suspects the reason might instead be that she doesn't do public tours like Goodall. Galdikas is in the field most of the time, taking care of 330 orangutan orphans. "Their mothers are killed," she explains.
In the past year, the rescuers have released 30 adolescent orphans into the wild. She'd like to release them all, but the forest isn't big enough.
Females don't roam, preferring instead to linger near the release site and wait for males to come courting. By most accounts, orangutans aren't very reactive. Sometimes the only way you'd know if an orangutan remembers you is if he or she actually looks at you. Unless you are Galdikas.
Her assistant, Sarah, urges her to describe what happens when Galdikas returns to the forest. "They all come out to greet you," Sarah prompts.
"They come and see me, that's true."
It is relaxing to be in Galdikas' presence. She moves slowly, speaks slowly, makes little eye contact. Her voice is low and soft. At times she seems more orangutan than human, having soaked up the calm serenity of the creatures she studies. Asked if she prefers the company of orangutans to humans, she shrugs. "Not really. They're about the same."
An orangutan's wants are simpler, more concrete. "They want food. They don't want to go to the movies. The don't want to ride in your car."
They are also highly intelligent. In terms of language acquisition, they're as smart as a pre-verbal 3-year-old human. And in terms of navigating the forest, they would give an army ranger a run for his money. "All orangutans can be taught language to a certain level," she says. "They don't discuss nuclear physics, is what I'm saying."
She, on the other hand, discusses their plight endlessly with government officials. The largest wild population of orangutans in the world, some 6,000 individuals, lives in Galdikas' forest. She is the reason so much greenery still exists: She purchases it to conserve it. A biologically viable population, one where the processes of evolution can continue unimpeded, one that wouldn't suffer from genetic inbreeding, requires 500 to several thousand individuals, with no predators, living in a very productive forest. Any less than that and orangutans have a hard time finding mates with whom to breed. Borneo's vast primordial forests — the size of California and Nevada combined — are being fragmented by palm oil plantations and timber estates and other monocultures.