The Gardeners Of Eden

Canadian primatologist Biruté Galdikas faces the challenge of how to save the endangered orang-utans of Borneo.

The walls of Professor Biruté Galdikas’ campus office are covered with pictures of her favourite orang-utans and framed awards recognising her ground-breaking fieldwork with them. In one corner sits a wooden Dayak blowpipe; hanging off a beam in a wooden sheath is a Dayak machete, and a medicine holder. Opposite her chair is a large photograph of her Dayak husband, Pak Bohap. In another corner are pictures of her children from two marriages – and two continents.

Professor Galdikas leads a somewhat nomadic lifestyle these days. She divides her time between Vancouver, Canada (where she teaches a semester at Simon Fraser University), Los Angeles (where she is president of the Orang-utan Foundation International), and Kalimantan, Borneo (where she continues her fieldwork with the orang-utans). In between, she lectures at sites around the globe. the strongest pull, however, is exerted by Borneo – wherever she is, Borneo is never far away in her heart.

Very little was known about the shy tree-dwelling orang-utans when Biruté Galdikas arrived in Borneo in 1971, at the age of 25, with her first husband, Rod. Galdikas was intent on collecting material for a doctoral thesis at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). The project was backed by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, whom Galdikas met when he delivered a lecture at UCLA in 1969. Although she grew up in Canada, Galdikas had moved to Los Angeles to pursue further studies. Leakey encouraged the study of the great apes because of their close genetic link to human beings. Galdikas is known as one of the “Leakey Angels” – the other two members of this exclusive club being Jane Goodall (who studies chimpanzees in Tanzania) and Dian Fossey (who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda before her death).

Arriving in Tanjung Puting Reserve, Kalimantan, Galdikas started her research site with a few huts in the jungle, reached by dugout canoe. She christened the place Camp Leakey in honour of her mentor. Over time she transformed Camp Leakey from a makeshift outpost to an established field station, and gained reassurances from the local authorities that they would not touch the forest where she wanted to conduct her study. Later she became the driving force behind the creation of Tanjung Puting National Park – one of the largest of its kind in South-East Asia.

The word orang-utan is derived from two Malay words, meaning “person of the forest”. the reddish-haired apes are so secretive and solitary that for a long time Galdikas had trouble even finding an orang-utan, let alone studying one. “Later, I would see lone orang-utans move past each other in trees with barely a glance, almost like two New Yorkers rushing past each other on a crowded street, except that the orang-utans’ aerial sidewalks were not overcrowded and they had no obvious schedules to keep.

Orang-utans don’t even feed in the same tree. They can be quite social, but they also seem to be perfectly at ease being alone….The idea of a solitary ape ran counter to everything we knew about the primates.”

Galdikas adapted to rigorous life in the jungle – but fieldwork was not easy. She had to deal with biting insects, deep swamps, falling branches and mysterious illnesses. Despite the difficulties, she likens Borneo to a relic of the Garden of Eden, harking back to the era millions of years ago when tropical rainforest covered much of the planet, and when our ancestors presumably lived in the treetops. And she calls the orang-utans – the ancient inhabitants of this realm – “the gardeners of the Garden of Eden.” The apes are essential agents for seed dispersal throughout the forest. “They eat fruit and disperse the seeds with little packages of fertiliser. They’ll also pick some fruit, put it in their mouth, and then travel a bit and spit the seeds out.”

Not only the gardeners of Eden, but also the gourmets of Eden – over the course of 25 years of research, Galdikas has observed orang-utans need a wide range to forage for food – adult males require at least 40 square kilometres to roam in. They consume enormous amounts of fruit, and are especially fond of ripe durian. This spiky football-sized fruit contains pod-like sections that have the texture of a ripe French Camembert – and a rank smell to match – and are highly nutritious.

A major discovery that Galdikas made, is that orang-utans have a slow reproductive cycle, which does not bode well for the future of the species. “The birth interval for orang-utans is very long – the female gives birth, on average, only every eight years.” Once widespread over South-East Asia, orang-utans, are a highly endangered species now, found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Orang-utans are the only truly arboreal apes, spending over 90 per cent of their time in the trees, and sleeping in comfortable nests they fashion from small branches. An adult male can weigh up to 110 kilograms – easily the largest mammal in the treetops, and they are incredibly strong. An aggressive male orang-utan heading towards you can be very intimidating, although Galdikas has learned to take it in her stride, and stare the ape down. “I felt true awe sitting close to a wild adult orang-utan. They’re so magnificent, so powerful, yet so benign.”

Galdikas tracks orang-utans from the ground – which is not easy because of swamps, but “once they get used to your presence, orang-utans move slowly.” Her Dayak assistants, however, have no trouble climbing into the rainforest canopy if they have to. For fieldwork, Galdikas uses up to 15 Dayak trackers. “Reading the forest is their native language,” says Galdikas.

“Having come to the tropical rainforest as a young adult, I would always speak this language with a foreign accent, even though my accent would diminish over the years.”

Although glimpses of Galdikas’ fieldwork had appeared in ‘National Geographic articles, it was the 1995 publication of her book ‘Reflections of Eden’ that introduce her enthralling experiences in the jungles of Borneo to a much broader audience. The book has been translated into Indonesian. “The book changed everything,” sighs Galdikas. “Life just became more complex.” Starting with a publisher’s promotional tour, ‘Reflections of Eden’ boosted demand for Galdikas as a guest speaker and lecturer.

In recognition of her pioneering studies, establishing her as the world’s foremost orang-utan expert and a leading conservation figure, Galdikas has been showered with awards. These include the Institute of Human Origins Science Award, the UN Global 500 Environmental Award, the Order of Canada, the Eddie Bauer Hero for the Earth Award, the Sierra Club Chico Mendes Award – the latter presented to her during a session of the US Senate.

None of this has gone to her head, however. Her energies are directed tirelessly into research, and into campaigning on behalf of the endangered orang-utans. It was for this purpose that she founded, in 1986, the Orang-utan Foundation International (OFI), an organisation that she heads as president. The OFI has chapters in Los Angeles (USA), London (UK), and Perth (Australia). Its primary goal is educational: the OFI maintains a web site in the US (; OFI members visit schools in North America, and conduct a programme in Indonesian schools, where free colouring books are distributed. The OFI educational programme is not just about orang-utans – it is about the rainforest and the entire ecosystem that the orang-utans are part of. As Biruté Galdikas eloquently phrases it: “Concern for orang-utans indicates concern for the planet.”

This article was written by Michael Buckley, a freelance Canadian travel witer and photographer based in Vancouver. He is the author or co-author of six books, including Lonely Planets Guide to China. His latest book is entitled Vientnam, Cambodia & Laos Handbook (Moon Publications, USA). His feature stories have been published in numerous places – anthologies, newspapers, magazines, and magazines on the internet. His credits include Asia Inc., The Globe and Mail, Escape Magazine and Microsoft’s adventure travel e-zine Mungo Park

Going Wild Again

In the course of her work, Galdikas has returned over 100 captured, orphaned or injured orang-utans to the wild, after nurturing and rehabilitation in Kalimantan. Camp Leakey, however, no longer operates as a rehabilitation centre – this function is fulfilled by other centres in Kalimantan, which are off-limits to visitors. However, some of the orang-utans who have set up their home ranges around Camp Leakey, come into camp occasionally, and several juveniles are fed regularly.


In Malaysian Borneo, there are two orang-utan rehabilitation centres open to visitors. About half and hours drive from Kuching (Sarawak) is Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. And a short drive from Sandakan (Sabah) is Sepilok Sanctuary, located in 43 square kilometres of magnificent tropical rainforest. At these centres, orang-utans hone their survival skills – like climbing trees and making sleeping nests – before being returned to the wild. The highlight of a visit to a rehabilitation centre is observing an orang-utan feeding session at a tree platform.

The above articles appeared in Malaysia Airlines in-flight magazine “GOING PLACES” in July 1998

Additional photographs on this page are courtesy of Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation and Andrea Molyneaux (pBase).