Braving the Hellish Jungles of Borneo, Birute Galdikas Probes the Secrets of One of Our Oldest Relations

updated 01/16/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/16/1989 01:00AM

The flat-bottom riverboat chugs along like the African Queen, heading deep into the jungle at the southern tip of Borneo. Manic cries of weird birds mingle with the howls of gibbons unseen in the towering palms. Suddenly a weather-beaten dock comes into view, one of the few signs of habitation since the rickety craft departed the jungle hamlet of Kumai. Eight hours have passed, but the journey has traversed millennia, for this is the forest primeval.

"Welcome to Camp Leakey," says Birute Galdikas. The plump, bespectacled Canadian smiles with shy pride as she welcomes a visitor to the rude encampment that for 17 years has been the home, laboratory, library and office from which she has pioneered the study of orangutans.

"I was always interested in the origins of humans and why we existed and where we were going," she explains. "If you believe in evolution, our ancestors originated from creatures that would be called great apes. And it's highly likely that before our ancestors walked on the dry savanna, they lived in the tropical rain forest. The orangutan is the one great ape that has never left."

A visitor can't help but be grateful that some great ape did. For though this corner of the Tanjung Puting National Park in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan provides a hospitable environment for such exotic species as the cloud leopard, tiny mouse deer and Malayan sun bear, for Homo sapiens it is a green hell. Here, just two degrees below the equator, the heat and humidity can be infernal. Hungry crocodiles patrol the rivers; the swamps beyond are infested with the deadly snakes known as red-headed kraits, whose bite can kill a man in 30 minutes. At dusk and dawn the air is filled with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Yet to Galdikas, 42, the rain forest is "a place of peace." And by dint of her work here, she has become the world's foremost authority on orangutans.

She is the third of a remarkable trio of women handpicked by the famed anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey to study the great apes. First there was Jane Goodall, who has spent 27 years in Gombe, Tanzania, observing chimpanzees. Then there was Dian Fossey, subject of the film Gorillas in the Mist, who, after 18 years in Rwanda, was murdered while defending her beloved mountain gorillas from poachers. And finally there is Birute M.F. Galdikas. The knowledge she has gained has dramatically deepened our understanding of simian behavior, but she has paid dearly for it: Her first husband headed back to civilization in 1978, and she suffers recurring bouts of malaria. Yet she has no regrets. "I stuck it out because I really like orangutans," she says.

Galdikas, who was born in West Germany and grew up in Canada and California, was a 21-year-old UCLA graduate student in anthropology when she met Leakey in 1969. The legendary anthropologist who discovered the remains of humankind's earliest ancestors in East Africa had come to UCLA to give a guest lecture. Galdikas waited in the hall "till there was nobody left but me," she recalls. "I said, 'I want to study orangutans. Will you help me?' "

Impressed by Galdikas' commitment, Leakey decided virtually on the spot that he would. He was pleased to learn that Galdikas was engaged to a Canadian physics student, Rod Brindamour, who was eager to go along. "Indonesia is a Moslem country," explains Galdikas. "Officials would not have approved of a woman researcher living alone."

It took Leakey 2½ years to raise the $9,000 that was needed to launch Galdikas' work. In the meantime he sent her to London to meet with Goodall, whom she describes as her "hero," and Fossey. Although she says both women treated her "like a younger sister," Galdikas, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, felt uncomfortable in their company. Goodall's upper-class British reserve was difficult for her to understand, and the force of Fossey's personality awed her. "Finally," says Galdikas, "I asked Jane, 'What am I going to do when I get to the field?' And she replied, 'You're going to do exactly what I did: You're going to go out and find them.' "

What Galdikas and Brindamour found in Borneo in October 1971 was the abandoned park-ranger station that the Indonesian government had provided for them—a primitive bark-and-thatch hut. "It was filthy and filled with all sorts of vermin," recalls Galdikas. "Rod later told me he fully expected me to turn around and demand to be taken back."

But the hut was like a pleasure dome compared to the surrounding swamps through which she had to wade in search of the elusive, solitary orangs, who spend most of their time in the tops of trees. "I'd leave camp at 5:30 A.M. and find myself in pitch-black water up to my armpits. You ask yourself, 'Do I really want to do this?' " At the end of most days, as fat black leeches bloated with her blood fell off her neck and squirmed out of her underwear, Galdikas had not even seen an orang. "But we never thought of giving up," she says. "We loved what we were doing."

Their big break came that first Christmas Eve. Galdikas had trailed one orang all day until it made a nest in the trees for the night. She went back before dawn and found the creature still there. "It was the best Christmas present I ever had," she says. "The breakthrough was that we knew we could follow them until evening, then find them in the same tree the next day."

She proceeded to observe the apes in painstaking detail, cataloging 400 different things they ate, from figs to insects. She was the first scientist to see them mate and give birth, and she watched their offspring grow to mate and give birth. No researcher before her had ever seen orangutans fight, but she observed males grabbing and biting each other in combat over females. She learned that the orangs, though basically solitary, actually have a complex web of relationships, coming together to mate and compete for territory. Though they live apart, they keep track of who is where by vocalizing through the forest. The scope of her observations exceeded what primatologists had thought possible. Says an admiring Goodall: "Compiling data on the animals was considerably tougher for Birute than for me. Chimps are very sociable. It might take her a year to see what I can observe in one lucky day."

In time, Brindamour and Galdikas became activists as well as scientists, campaigning to protect the endangered orangutans, which exist only in Borneo and Sumatra. Some Indonesians kill orangs for food; Brindamour would chase poachers out of the reserve. Others keep them as pets—often in horrifying conditions. Galdikas offers to take in any such captives, reeducate them and return them to the treetops. When she convinced the Indonesian chief of police to turn his pet orang over to her, the news made headlines in the capital city of Djakarta. Soon, Camp Leakey—named for her mentor—was overrun with repatriated orangs. The result was a sort of happy chaos, with baby orangs clinging to Galdikas and her assistants during the day and sleeping curled up with them at night. Adults caused their own brand of mayhem. Weighing up to 300 lbs. and with the strength of several men, they can easily batter through a door or a roof. For nesting material, they ripped up books, clothing—even an umbrella. And their curiosity has led them to eat candles, chew binoculars, taste batteries, drink shampoo and consume vast amounts of toothpaste. One orang would routinely suck all the fountain pens dry. Undeterred by these antics, Galdikas has returned some 40 of the apes to the wild.

In 1976, after five years in the jungle, Galdikas, who had suffered ulcerous lesions from being continually wet, as well as such tropical illnesses as malaria and dengue fever, began to feel worse than she had in some time. "I thought I was dying from some rare viral disease," she says. "I didn't realize I was pregnant." Despite pleas from her parents and colleagues to have her baby back in the U.S., she continued to slog through fetid swamps until her eighth month. Just before the baby was due, she made the two-day journey by boat and plane across the Java Sea to a hospital in Djakarta. There she gave birth to her son Binte, named after a provincial official who had become a sort of adoptive father to her and her husband.

"It was after Binte was born that I became paranoid," says Galdikas. "If something happened to him, I was afraid it would be my fault." To cope with that fear, she brought Yuni, an attractive 17-year-old high school student from Djakarta, back to camp to watch over the infant. Binte flourished and despite the camp's isolation had no lack of friends. "The orangutans were his first playmates," Galdikas recalls. "He'd follow them up into the trees." He would also imitate their facial expressions, sounds and movements. When Gary Shapiro, then a graduate-student assistant of Galdikas', taught some sign language to Princess, a female orang, Binte picked it up and was able to talk to her.

By 1978, thanks largely to the work of Brindamour, the camp had grown from one hovel to six sturdy huts. Galdikas had obtained a series of grants and had been able to hire Dayaks (local tribesmen known as the Wild Men of Borneo before they formally gave up head-hunting in the '30s) to help her track her orangs. Her studies and articles, published in scientific journals and the National Geographic, had earned her a Ph. from UCLA. At that point, Brindamour and her parents had expected Galdikas to return to America to enjoy the fruits of her work. "We were all talking," she says, "but we weren't communicating. What no one was hearing was that I never intended to leave the forest."

Binte was 2½, and Brindamour was nearing a turning point. "He started to get restless," says Galdikas. "One day he came to me and said, 'I'm 30. I don't have a car, a bank account or a degree. I don't have anything I can put on my résumé except 7½ years in the jungles of Borneo.' I was surprised. It really came to him in the middle of the jungle that he wasn't going to get ahead." At that point Brindamour asked for a divorce. "He said he couldn't ask me to give up my studies here," says Galdikas, and besides, he had his next wife picked out. "He'd fallen in love with Yuni, the Indonesian student who was taking care of Binte."

With Binte and his new wife in tow, Brindamour returned to Vancouver, where he works as a computer consultant. He and Yuni have two children. When Galdikas goes to British Columbia once a year to teach a semester of primatology at Simon Fraser University, she stays with the five of them. Binte, she observes wistfully of the boy who once frolicked with orangutans, has turned into a typical kid. "He has just the normal pets now," she says, "and he watches too much TV." On his one return trip to Borneo, Binte "was bored very quickly." She misses him terribly, but feels he is better off in Canada. "He was North American. If you're not Indonesian, you have no place here."

Even after her divorce in 1979, Galdikas had no worry about Indonesian officials looking askance at a woman working alone. Her research had given her status. "I had assistants who respected me," she says. "I had graduate students in camp from all over Indonesia and North America." And, in time, she had a new husband, Bohap bin Jalan, a Dayak camp worker seven years her junior. Married in 1981, they have two children, Frederick, 6, and Jane, 3, named in honor of her colleague Goodall. While they have vastly different backgrounds, Galdikas says there is no cultural or intellectual gap. "He's as educated as I am, except he wasn't educated at a university. He was educated by experience. He's a very smart and shrewd man—smarter than I am."

Last September, Bohap took Frederick to live with him in his native village about 40 miles away so that the boy could attend school; they return to camp on weekends. "He made it clear when we were married," says Galdikas, "that in our lives the children would come first. There would be absolutely no competition between them and the orangutans." Still, a bit of interspecies rivalry seems inevitable. "Like recently," observes Galdikas, "with an ex-captive orang named Apollo Bob—I spend maybe three minutes a day with him. I told Jane, 'You're Momma's baby,' and she said, 'No, Apollo Bob is your baby."

In a way, perhaps, the little girl was right. The orangs have become part of Galdikas' family, and through her, we are learning that they are part of ours as well. As Jane Goodall says, explaining the importance of Galdikas' work as well as Fossey's and her own, "I think all three of us put together will help us better understand our own place in nature—that we're not as different from the animal kingdom as we think."

—Jack Friedman, and Doris Bacon in Borneo

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