Galdikas, Biruté (buh ROO tay GAHL duh kuhs) (1946-), a Canadian zoologist and primatologist, is the world's foremost authority on the orangutan, one of the world's most endangered species. For over 25 years, she has studied these great apes in their natural habitat, the rain forests of Indonesia. She has also rehabilitated and released back into the wild over 100 young orphaned orangutans that were illegally captured for pets or placement in zoos.
Biruté Marija Filomena Galdikas was born shortly after the end of World War II (1939-1945) in Germany, while her parents were en route to Canada from their homeland of Lithuania. The family settled in Toronto. In high school there she first read about the great red orangutan, whose name means “people of the forest” in Malay, and her interest was sparked. But it wasn't until 1965, when her family moved to the United States, that Galdikas began to study natural sciences. She received a B.A. degree, summa cum laude, from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1966 and her M.A. degree in anthropology, also from UCLA, in 1969. Her field research on orangutans earned her a Ph.D. degree from UCLA in 1978.
During graduate school, Galdikas discovered the work being done by Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, primatologists who were studying chimpanzees and gorillas, respectively, in the wild. From that point on, she had a single-minded desire to pursue a similar path and study the orangutan in its remaining habitat, the rain forests of Indonesia's islands of Borneo and Sumatra. After attending a lecture in 1969 by British anthropologist Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey, who had sponsored the work of both Goodall and Fossey, Galdikas convinced Leakey to sponsor her as well.
In September 1971, under the auspices of Leakey and the National Geographic Society, Galdikas and her husband, photographer Rod Brindamour, traveled to Borneo to set up “Camp Leakey,” named in honor of their benefactor. They were sent to Tanjung Puting, now a national park but at the time a virtually untouched forest on Borneo's southern coast.
There, they lived under extremely primitive conditions, as they began to document the habits of the great apes. Until then, there was little documented information on the solitary and reclusive orangutan, and initially Galdikas saw very little of the animals. But over time, she and Brindamour began to capture both reliable data and distinctive photographic footage, bringing the orangutan to widespread public attention for the first time. Their work, first published in National Geographic in 1975, also made them internationally known.
Dedicated to their research, Galdikas and Brindamour remained at Camp Leakey for five years, spending thousands of hours observing many different orangutans. For Galdikas, what began as a Ph.D. study of a few years evolved into a lifelong dedication not only to understanding the nature of the orangutan but also to preserving the creature's rapidly diminishing natural habitat.
Galdikas remained in Borneo after the birth of her first child, Binti Paul, in 1976. After she and her husband divorced in 1979, Brindamour returned to Canada and sent for Binti to live with him a year and a half later. Galdikas subsequently married a Dayak tribesman. Her husband, Pak Bohap, is a horticulturalist and also codirector of the Borneo orangutan program. They have two children and Galdikas still spends part of each year in Borneo, doing research and educating people on conservation measures to preserve orangutans and forests alike. The other part of the year she teaches at Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and presides over the Orangutan Foundation International in Los Angeles, an organization she cofounded in 1986.
Galdikas has maintained one of the longest field studies of any mammal ever done. Her meticulous research on the orangutan's eating habits has led to a deeper understanding of Indonesia's biological diversity and to much new information on the rain forest itself. Among many other “first observations,” she verified that adult orangutans live alone, unlike either gorillas or chimpanzees, and that in the wild female orangutans give birth only about every eight years.
As well as having published two books, including her autobiography, Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo, in 1995, and scores of scientific articles and reviews, Galdikas has received numerous prestigious awards for her tireless championing of the orangutan cause. Her work has also generated international concern over the plight of the orangutan and has led the Indonesian government to institute strict laws against poachers.