The last thing Birute Galdikas wanted or needed was to get involved in rescuing orangutans from the intrigue of international smuggling rings.
At her Borneo jungle camp, the UCLA-trained scientist had her hands full with the research that has made her the world's foremost authority on orangutans in the wild. In British Columbia while away from camp, she had students to teach at Simon Fraser University.
But then the call came.
In Bangkok Feb. 20, suspicious Thai authorities had opened crates labeled birds that had missed an Aeroflot flight to Belgrade. Inside, they discovered six baby orangutans and two siamang gibbon monkeys, all protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Immobilized with packing material, the little orangutans had waited for four days before rescue. Finally, their pitiful, distinctly un-birdlike cries prompted the cargo crew to X-ray the crates.
Three had suffered the ordeal upside down. Two had double pneumonia. All were badly dehydrated, all highly stressed.
"This is the tip of the iceberg and it shows how sick and weary our planet really is," Galdikas said in a recent interview during a Los Angeles stopover.
She called former Fresno zookeeper Diane Taylor Snow, who had worked with her in Borneo in 1987. While at the Fresno Zoo, Snow once had taken home an ailing cotton top tamarin from South America and stayed up night and day, nursing it back to health.
The orangutans were critically ill. Galdikas knew her student could not say no.
Leaving a job and a husband behind, Snow was in Bangkok five days after the seizure.
"The orangutans were getting sicker and sicker. I was told to expect two would be dead," Snow said in a telephone interview from Bangkok while the orangutans were recovering.
In Los Angeles, the Orangutan Foundation, which Galdikas heads, paid for Snow's rescue mission, aided by $400 from the Orangufans, an informal group of orangutan watchers at the Los Angeles Zoo. The foundation sent out an alert to 850 on its mailing list. The resulting barrage of international outrage was cited approvingly by Thai wildlife authorities.
The unfolding story now involves Thai and Indonesian authorities, the Wildlife Fund Thailand, the International Primate Protection League, a European government agency that monitors trade in endangered species, the Belgrade Zoo, a Singapore pet shop, an Indonesian animal exporter, a Soviet trade organization, a Miami importer and Kurt Schaefer, a 29-year-old West German living in Bangkok.
Schaefer acknowledged in a telephone interview from Thailand that he had been involved in the botched attempt to smuggle the orangutans.
"I have nothing to do with bloody monkeys in general," he said, adding that his business normally is exporting and importing birds. "I got involved in that because I do a friend a favor."
Orangutan smuggling is so widespread that saving six will not change anything, he said, adding that he is ready to face charges in any court.
"I mention no names. I took those six orangs from somewhere," he said mysteriously, "and where they would ship them to, (that) would be a better habitat. I think I did the right thing."
Whatever the outcome of investigations into the affair, the story starts and ends with Galdikas, the third "Leakey Lady," who, along with Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey, has devoted her life to the study of large apes in their natural habitat--and then had to contend with man's destruction of the habitat.
On Monday, Galdikas and the six baby orangutans flew first class back to Indonesia on a flight of the Indonesia national airline, Garuda. From there, an Indonesia Air Force transport plane took them to the jumping off place for a river trip to Galdikas' isolated jungle camp.
Galdikas got her start in studying orangutans in 1969.
The famed anthropologist, Dr. Louis Leakey, who had discovered the remains of early man in East Africa, had just given a guest lecture at UCLA. Galdikas, then a 21-year-old anthropology graduate student, waited until all others had left the hall.
"I want to study orangutans. Will you help me?" she asked.
The answer was yes. While raising funds for Galdikas, Leakey sent her to London to meet Goodall and Fossey.
"What am I going to do when I get out in the field?" Galdikas asked Goodall.
"You're going to do exactly what I did: You're going to go out and find them," Goodall answered.
But Galdikas faced a harder task than Goodall and Fossey.
Like them, she had to traverse forbidding terrain and live in the most primitive conditions. In the rain forest of Indonesian Borneo, that meant wading through pitch-black tropical streams loaded with leeches and bunking down in a vermin-filled, abandoned park ranger station that the Indonesia government let Galdikas and her husband use. She came down with malaria, dengue fever and tropical skin ulcers.
But unlike the sociable chimpanzees and gorillas studied by Goodall and Fossey, the orangutan--Malay for "man of the forest"--mostly lives a solitary life that makes observation more difficult.
Nevertheless, Galdikas was able to find orangutans, track them and watch them during their rare interactions.
The first Western scientist to observe orangutan mating habits and see an orangutan giving birth, Galdikas also followed individuals as they grew to sexual maturity. She witnessed enraged males battling over a female and she learned how hooting cries enable orangutans to keep track of one another.
"I want to understand their life histories," she said.
In addition to scientific work, she became involved in trying to protect orangutans, which native tribes captured for food, eating mother orangutans and selling the babies to townspeople as pets.
"When I arrived, it became apparent that if I didn't get involved in conservation, all our wild orangutans might be at risk," she said.
After several years, her efforts seemed to pay off. Tribal people in Kalimantan province began giving her baby orangutans. City dwellers gave her their pet orangutans to release. She even persuaded the Indonesia chief of police to turn over his pet orang in a move that made headlines in Jakarta, the Indonesia capital.
"People did not keep orangutans. They did not trade them openly," she said.
Her camp in the Tanjung Puting National Park became a base for re-educating young orangutans to return to the wild. Gary Shapiro--then a graduate student in anthropology, now vice president of the Orangutan Foundation--taught rudimentary sign language to some of the orangutans.
It was too good to last.
While Galdikas was making headway locally, the population of wild orangutans--estimated between 5,000 and 30,000--was coming under attack from larger, impersonal forces in the rain forests of Malaysia and Indonesia, their only natural habitat.
"This past year, it is like a dam has burst," said Galdikas.
About half of the tropical rain forest habitat of Borneo, second largest in the world after the Amazon, has been lost or severely damaged in the last 30 years, as fires, logging and permanent agriculture destroyed virgin stands of tropical hardwoods.
In the early 1980s, the World Bank funded "transmigration" projects to establish settlements there for Indonesia's burgeoning population. Orangutans came into increasing conflict with man over territory.
"When orangutans start coming into contact with people, there is no place (for them) to hide, there is no place to run (because) the forest is gone, and people have guns, people have blow guns, people have all kinds of dogs. The orangutans are going to be on the ground. Previously, they were 100 feet up in the trees," she said.
"A few years ago, I started receiving letters and reports from people in other parts of Borneo that the orangutan trade was increasing," she said.
In 1988, gold miners and dragon fish poachers flooded into the rain forest, emerging many a time not only with their chosen product, but also with an orangutan baby for sale, said Galdikas.
"You can get half a year's wages by selling an orangutan. You sell two or three and you are on the road to riches," she said. "The per capita income in Indonesia is $800. A color television is about $500."
In 1988, Galdikas had a face-to-face confrontation with an orangutan trader in the Borneo port city of Sampit.
"He said, 'You pay. If you want these two orangutans, if you want to release them in the wild, then you pay.' I said, 'I can't do that because then I would be breaking the law.' He said if I brought the police . . . that he would start killing the police, he would start killing the man who guided me there. The man who guided me there was trembling. His face was ashen."
Galdikas said that some of her students went to Sampit a year later and found that the man had sold the orangutans to Japanese sailors.
The incident was reported to Indonesian authorities to no avail. "What are they going to do? Indonesia has very strict laws about what the police can and cannot do. You just can't go and accuse somebody and arrest him because you heard that a year ago, he was trafficking in orangutans. . . . You practically have to have the orangutans on the smuggler."
Galdikas said that many are sold to Pacific Rim ships' crew members, who frequently offer, not cash, but color televisions. Western sailors, she said, "generally know better, know that orangutans are a protected species."
In pet shops in Taipei, Galdikas said, orangutans are for sale for about $4,000.
Much remains murky about February's failed attempt to smuggle the six orangutan babies.
A couple showed up to claim them and then fled when asked for documentation.
A week after the orangutans were taken into custody, Vukosav Bojovic, manager of the Belgrade Zoo, wrote Ansirichinda Boonlert, the Thai official who had ordered the move.
Bojovic sought the immediate release of "monkeys confiscated from Mr. Schaefer" on Feb. 20, and promised that airline transportation would be taken care of "because we already have paid all the transport expenses."
In late March, however, Bojovic wrote the International Primate Protection League, which had alerted the Orangutan Foundation about the orangutans, that he was "surprised by the suspicion that our zoo has been involved in smuggling (and Yugoslavia too)." Bojovic added that all that he knew about "K. Schaefer" was "from your letters. We have no further informations. We would gladly help you if we only could."
The orangutans, although originally from Indonesia, had arrived in Bangkok via Singapore.
To trace the Singapore connection, Dr. Shirley McGreal, president of the International Primate Protection League and the individual who had first alerted Galdikas of the orangutans' plight, called Marjorie Doggett, a 67-year-old retired nurse who serves as contact for the organization in Singapore.
Doggett, a resident of Singapore for 40 years, said in a telephone interview that she went to the address of a pet store listed as the shipper of the orangutans.
"It was definitely a hairdressing salon," she said.
In Miami, Matthew Block, owner of Worldwide Primates Inc., acknowledged he had done business with Schaefer but denied that his firm had anything to do with the orangutan smuggling attempt.
"That is completely false," he said. "The people who made that statement will be hearing from our legal people. Worldwide Primates is involved in the supply of primates to the biomedical field. We have been in business for over 10 years.
"In Thailand, we know one of the people who is involved--Kurt Schaefer--but we have other dealings with him and beyond that we have no comment. . . . Yes, I know there were some faxes back and forth. They had to do with other business."
Though initially reluctant to speak, Schaefer did acknowledge his involvement in the foiled smuggling attempt. He also was critical of McGreal and her organization.
"I protect more primates in my life than she ever did," he asserted. "She sends them back to Asia and they are going to go back to the black market. . . . If you want to buy them tomorrow, you go with me and for $600 to $800 we can buy them. . . . Even (in) Jakarta, you can get them. . . . Everybody is corrupt and nobody is going to change the system."
Schaefer confirmed that there is an active trade in orangutans, estimating between 50 and 100 a year are smuggled out of Indonesia. "I can tell you exactly where they go. Eastern (European) countries. They go to to Arab countries and they go to South America. Usually, they go to zoos."
(Conservationists say dealers can charge zoos between $50,000 and $100,000 for orangutans. Galdikas said that each baby orangutan smuggled out represents as many as 15 orangutan mothers and babies who have been killed or died in captivity.)
Asked if zoo officials are aware of the illicit origins of the orangutans, Schaefer replied, "They know, they know. Sure, they know."
West German wildlife authorities are reviewing the case to see if there is legal authority to charge Schaefer for acts committed outside West Germany. It would not be his first violation. In 1981 and again in the mid-1980s, Schaefer confirmed that he had paid fines for smuggling Australian cockatoos into Germany.
The abortive smuggling attempt has become big news in Bangkok and Indonesia.
"Every television station has been out here a few times," said Snow. Said Galdikas: "This has been front page in Indonesia."
In a ceremony Friday, the orangutans, along with the two gibbons, were handed over to Galdikas and Gatot Suwardi, the Indonesian ambassador to Thailand, by Thai Agriculture Ministry officials.