Birute Galdikas

(1946- )

Compiled by Carol Bell (December 1999)

Galdikas Biography
Time Line

Renowned scientist and conservationist, Birute M. F. Galdikas was born in Germany in 1946, raised in Canada, and earned her Ph.D in anthropology at UCLA. She is an expert primatologist whose primary focus is on that of her research and preservation of the indigenous orangutan that inhabit the tropical rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra. Borneo and Sumatra are both islands of Indonesia, surrounded by the water of the South China Sea. On the southern shore of Borneo is a National Park called Tanjung Puting. This natural reserve has been the station of many researchers, including Galdikas, that have traveled to Borneo attempting to study the behavior of the secretive, endangered orangutan.

In 1971, at the age of twenty-five, she traveled to the island of Borneo as one of three female understudies of the renowned Louis Leakey to research the "last arboreal great ape" left on Earth. Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, formed the famed trio known as "Leakey's angels". They are three women who were inspired by Leakey to venture into the natural habitat of various primates such as the chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan. Dr. Galdikas was urged by Leakey to travel to the rain forests of Borneo a place only lightly touched by civilization to study the orangutan, whose species had not yet been successfully researched. The object of her mission was to, by studying the orangutan, learn more about the origin of human behavior.

"Birute Galdikas climbed out of a sapan in 1971 and settled in an abandoned forester's hut in Borneo's nature reserve of Tanjung Puting" (Spalding, 1998). Galdikas, like Fossey and Goodall, sought out to find any sign indicating the presence of the desired primate. For her, the primate was the orangutan, also known as the "red ape". "My first years in the field were years of discovery, when merely finding a wild orangutan was exciting, when following an orangutan for a week or more was a triumph, when almost everything I learned about orangutans was new " (Galdikas, 1995).

Dr. Galdikas has currently spent twenty-five years in the rain forests of Indonesia. During those years she has married an Indonesian native named Pak Bohap, raised three children of her own, and became serogate mother to over one hundred wounded, rescued and orphaned orangutans. Since her early arrival in Borneo, when the land was pure and plentiful and the animals were at peace in the ecosystem, Galdikas has found within this tropical environment of these orangutan her home, as well as a world and species in need of rescue.

Since 1971, the Borneo that Galdikas first knew has changed. During the twenty five years that she has lived on the island, the orangutan have become nearly extinct due to poachers who capture them in order to sell them as pets as well as to zoos and laboratories. In 1990, she helped retrieve and repatriate six orangutan infants that had been smuggled out of Borneo. "As an intergovernmental liaison, she helped to secure the proper permits for the return of the six in fant orangutan to their native land of Indonesia" (URL 1). These six orangutans became the famous "Bangkok Six". The environment of the island has also become endangered. Galdikas has made it her goal to save not only the orangutan, but to preserve the environment in which they live. Her efforts to save the orangutan and their environment include giving extensive lectures and research material to natives of Indonesia and abroad.

To date, Dr. Galdikas has been involved in many major projects concerning the welfare of the orangutans and their environment. She is responsible for the preservation of Camp Leakey, her research canter for twenty-five years. She has worked hard for the continuous restoration of the degraded forest of Borneo. Galdikas has maintained the Orphaned Orangutan Education and Care Center in Borneo. Most importantly, Dr. Galdikas continues to educate and inform others of the significance of the "red ape" by providing detailed knowledge to the scientific community. "In 1986 Birute Galdikas co-founded the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) which is based in Los Angeles, California and OFI has chapters in Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Taiwan and the United Kingdom" (URL 1). She is currently the president of this organization and serves as Honorary Chairperson and Scientific Director of all five Chapters. Since 1986, the Orangutan Foundation has been influential in promoting significant research and conservation activities, international cooperation in repatriating orangutans, awareness of orangutans, and tropical rain forest issues domestically and abroad, and orangutan protection regulations abroad.

Dr. Galdikas has been the recipient of many awards during her career including, Indonesia's "Hero for the Earth Award", Mini Nobel Science Award-Gustavus Adolphus, United Nations Global 500 Environmental Award, and Eddie Bauer Hero for the Earth Award. She has been featured in magazines such as National Geographic,Life, and The New York Times. Galdikas has also been featured in a number of television documentaries including Good Morning America and Connie Chung's Eye to Eye. She wrote her autobiography, Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo in 1995.

Dr. Galdikas entered the rain forests of Borneo on a mission to research and study the behavior of the orangutan in order to further understand the origin of human behavior. One of the most similar characteristics of the orangutan to that of humans according to Galdikas is their maternal instinct. She tells a college in California, "...orangutans have the most intense mother-offspring relationship of probably any mammal. If you look at the somewhat solitary life of the orangutan in adulthood, what prepares him or her for that life is the very intense period, which lasts seven to eight--usually about ten--years, when the immature orangutan, male or female, is in contact with his or her mother one hundred percent of the time" (Spalding, 1998). This mother-offspring relationship is what continues to intrigue Galdikas. She has raised her three children just as a mother orangutan raises her young. To Dr. Galdikas, the orangutan and natives of Borneo are her family. She has worked many years in order to keep her family together and healthy. To the inhabitants of Borneo, she is a hero.


Dr. Galdikas, like Fossey and Goodall, believed that by studying the behavior of primates, our closest ancsestors, the scientific world would be able to better define the origin of human behavior. Galdikas developed a strong relationship with the orangutan and as a result has become very attached to them. The well being of the species and their environment is the reason Dr. Galdikas has achieved so many goals.

Time Line
1946 Dr. Birute M.F. Galdikas was born.
1971 Arrived at the Indonesian island of Borneo.
1986 Created the Orangutan Foundation.
1990 Cared for and helped repatriate the famous, very ill "Bangkok Six".
1991 Orangutan Foundation became Orangutan Foundation International
1995 Published Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo
1995 Featured on Connie Chung's Eye to Eye.
1996 Senior advisor to the Ministry of Forestry on orangutan issues
1997 awarded the "Kalpataru", the highest award given by the Republic of Indonesia for outstanding environmental leadership and activity.
1998 76,000 hectare wildlife reserve was developed based on the recommendation of Galdikas after the devastating Borneo fires the year before.
1999 Opened Care Center

Galdikas, B. (1995). Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo. New York: Little, Brown and Company

Spalding, L. (1998). A Dark Place in the Jungle. North Carolina: Algonquin Books

URL 1 About Our President, Dr. Birute M.F. Galdikas;

WEB Resources
The Orangutan: Quintessential Rainforest Dweller;

The Truth About Dr. Birute Galdikas;

Brief Historical Background;

Birute; Emikelil/birute.html

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