Professor Biruté Galdikas has devoted 26 years to field studies of the endangered orangutan and is the world's leading expert on orangutan behaviour and ecology. Her study is one of the longest, continuous studies by one principal investigator of any mammal in the world.
Until her research, the orangutan was the least known of the great apes. Galdikas brought the orangutan to the attention of the rest of the world and through the use of sophisticated data analysis has shed light not only on orangutan behaviour but also on the animal's habitat and diet. This has provided important information on the rainforest as a whole and a better understanding of Indonesia's biodiversity.
As an outgrowth of her scientific research on orangutans, Galdikas is involved with numerous conservation efforts in Indonesia that are leading to the restoration of forests in Borneo, maintenance of a care centre for orphaned orangutans, and the education of young people about the importance of the endangered orangutans.
In large measure, the success of the orangutan studies has been due Galdikas's ability to get local people and Indonesian students involved in field research and conservation efforts. Early in her career, Galdikas was instrumental in helping establish what was then the largest national park in Borneo.
Galdikas and other researchers are involved in wild orangutan studies in six different regions in Borneo and neighbouring Sumatra. Using a list of cultural variables, they compared their findings on everything from food, home ranging, tool use, and nesting to see if there was a universal orangutan culture, or whether there was a geographical variance. “We found that each population had its own traditions,” says Galdikas. “Given that orangutans are on the verge of extinction, it highlights the severity and uniqueness of what we’re losing. What this means is that we can’t save one population of orangutans and think we’re saving the species.”
“The effects of illegal logging on the orangutans have been horrendous. The problem is not just the illegal logging but where this illegal logging has taken place. One would assume the National Parks and other protected conservations areas would actually be safe for wildlife. Unfortunately some of the most massive illegal logging taking place in Kalimantan today is in National Parks.”
“There's absolutely no sanctuary for orangutans of the species. There's no place they can run to, there's no place they can hide because the forests are all disappearing. We are looking at an extinction rate such - so high that probably if it continues as it is now, probably in 10 to 20 years time there will be no wild orangutan populations left. There will be probably individuals because orangutans can live up to 60 years in captivity and they probably live as long in the wild. So you're gonna have lone, solitary, old orangutans wandering the forests by themselves.”