Living amongst orangutans since 1971

It was 1971 when the young Canadian Biruté Galdikas arrived in Borneo to observe wild orangutans in the forest. The documentary ‘Born to be wild’ (2011) tells us that she still lives there 40 years later, as an adult Bornean orangutan visited her wooden house in the forest like an old friend. The ape took a share of spaghetti out of a plate and they were eating the strings together. Today Biruté works as a tourguide for (small-scale) ecotourism in the same forest. Over the years it seems that her house is transformed into a safety zone where free apes are welcome to come and go and accustomed to human company.

When you read Birutés’ book Reflections of Eden you’ll understand why she’s eating Italian with an ape friend who lives probably most of the time high in the canopy. As a student she only could dream of studying orangutans from a distance, but when she arrived they were coming closer and closer. Let’s take a look how her story began in 1971.

Camp Leaky

At the start of her adventure Biruté Galdikas was accompanied by her then-husband Rod Brindamour and five Indonesian escorts. On the first day the crew entered the dense forest by boat. That night they slept together in a tiny hut. It had been built by hand-loggers and then abandoned about a year earlier. From this spot, Biruté named her study side ‘Camp Leakey’. It was the beginning of living the primative life

The first months, the couple had to be patient. On rare occasions Biruté and Rod spotted orangutans in the forest, but the great apes were almost hidden in the heights of the canopy. They could barely see them and the red apes were always swinging away out of sight. But after a few months they were able to follow an orangutan female with a small ball of orange fuzz on her shoulders, which happened to be a little ape boy. Biruté named them Beth and Bert.

It occurred to her that the mother orangutan may have been observing her for weeks before revealing her presence. It makes you wonder who was leading the actual research here. Biruté wrote down her findings as follows:

After staring at us intently for more than a minute, Beth began to construct a small day nest, bending and twisting branches into a circular platform and covering it with a cushion of leafy twigs. Sitting in her nest, Beth continued to vocalize and shake branches at us. Occasionally she stopped to bend a new branch into her nest. Then, less than fifteen minutes later, she left the day nest and moved slowly on through the trees, continuing to kiss-squeak… Beth fed at five different trees that day, combining fruit and bark. Her infant, Bert, rode on her shoulders, his arms wrapped around her neck like a scarf, never leaving her body… Clearly, our presence annoyed Beth, but she did not let us interrupt her routine. Finally, she constructed a night nest in the top of a tree and went to sleep… I was overjoyed: for the first time I had followed a wild orangutan for an entire day.[1]

After their encounter with the ape-mother and son, Biruté and Rod were able to follow orangutans more regularly. While they were wandering through the forest, it sometimes rained branches, fruit, peels, bark and urine from the canopy. The apes were not really hiding themselves anymore. Usually Biruté and Rod were splitting up at daylight to gather as much as data as possible.

moeder en zoon

Black chapter

The book is giving a full insight of important things Biruté had learned at the island she once characterized as the Paradise of Eden. But her paradisal dream was heading towards a black chapter when she saw a mother orangutan and her two sons dying of starvation after a season of drought. Biruté and her husband Rod thought it would be best not to intrude on nature. But the incident was upsetting them from the start, and they regretted the choice they made.

Biruté was convinced that this tragedy could be prevented if the forest would not be decimated by loggers. From then on she promised herself that she would help the ape residents who were unnaturally deprived of their habitat. It made Rod more determined to protect the forest the best he could.

The couple didn’t seem afraid of going after the loggers. They were winning some respect from locals. Not because of their environmental cause, but by showing some backbone and knowledge of law. Showing strength was very important in a culture where life itself was not taken for granted and people felt many insecurities.

The tropical forests inhabited by orangutans in Borneo had remained almost untouched through the 1950’s. This changed in the 1960’s, shortly before Biruté arrived. Logging and additional infrastructure opened up dense places where animals could hide themselves. Burité stated:

When I went to Borneo in 1971, I never imagined the wholesale, massive destruction of tropical rain forest and the slaughter of thousands of orangutans that would occur over the next decades in other areas of Borneo and Sumatra. I believed that humans had deprived wildborn captive orangutans of their natural rights, and so humans had an obligation to rescue and protect them – but not at the expense of the wild orangutan population.[2]

As her research progressed, more people were involved in the projects of Camp Leakey. Biruté got help from locals and students from abroad were staying for collecting data and obtaining field experience.


Biruté Galdikas was the third pioneer and female researcher to study apes in the wild, under the supervision of the well-known paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey. And she was just as concerned about the environment as her two colleagues were. Together with Jane Goodall, who was following groups of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania since 1960, and Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda since 1966, they formed the so-called ‘Trimates’.



When Biruté arrived at Borneo she immediately became involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of wildborn orangutans who had been captured by humans. Orangutan-babies were often taken away from their mother’s dead body to keep them as a pets or sell them to circuses, laboratories and even zoos. And she had to figure out for herself what to do with them when there was no orangutan female available to adopt an orphan. The only option was to raise some orphans herself. Because without a mother, the poor little primates would surely die.

I gloried in being a mother to Akmad, Sobiarso, and Sugito. It felt like the role I was born for. In the middle of the forest, in a tiny hut with no electricity or comforts of civilization, I spend all my waking hours mothering, when I was not searching for or observing wild orangutans.[3]

Biruté tells how mothering became even more intense when, about six weeks after his arrival, Sugito discovered her thumb. Because it had the same size as the nipple of a nursing female, all tree orangutans showed some interests in it. But Sugito couldn’t have enough of it, and Biruté compared his habit to that of a chain-smoker. If she would deny him the thumb, he had a fit. She soon learned that it was easier to give him the thumb on demand than to try to ration it. When she withheld his ‘pacifier’, Sugito would scream hysterically nonstop as he destroyed every object within reach.

While orangutan mothers allow their infants to suckle on demand, Biruté was not built for this particular job. It made her thumbs hurt so bad that she frequently wanted to scream in agony when Sugito sucked. Acting as a foster ape mother was far from easy. The jungle school didn’t exist yet and she had no diapers or other tools.


Today’s jungle schools are ape centers where orphans are being prepared to go back to the wild or semi-wild areas. They are encouraged by humans to make nests, climb in trees and recognize the food they can eat. They are also learning from each other and playing and hugging each other, since the knowledge and warmth of their mothers had been killed by mankind.

Like Galdikas said: Humans have an obligation to rescue and protect them!

Some do it directly. Others donate!

The book Reflections of Eden of Biruté Galdikas shows the groundwork for the setting up of The Orangutan Foundation International in 1986.

My desk
[1] Biruté Galdikas, Reflections of Eden, Canada (1995) p. 97-98.
[2] Galdikas (1995) p. 376.
[3] Galdikas (1995) p. 208

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