Science / Medicine : Orangutans in the Mist : Woman’s 20-Year Study of Elusive Rain Forest Apes Finds They’re Not Antisocial After All
About 30 years ago, noted anthropologist Louis Leakey sent the first of three women to Africa and Asia to study primates in the wild. By learning how the primates lived and interacted, he hoped to find important clues to the lives of the first humans that would flesh out the skeletal picture provided by his own excavation of fossils in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania.
In 1960, he sent Jane Goodall, then a naive 26-year-old with no college degree, to Tanzania. Her discoveries about chimpanzee sexual habits and care of offspring, as well as their eating habits, tool use and warfare, reinforced the now widely accepted conclusion that these primates are humans’ closest relatives. It also made her world-famous, providing her with a bully pulpit that she now uses to seek better treatment for primates used in research.
Seven years later, Leakey sent Dian Fossey, a 31-year-old occupational therapist, to Zaire and Rwanda to study gorillas. She documented the near-human family life of the animals in her book, “Gorillas in the Mist,” and became renowned for her efforts to preserve the species’ homelands before she was murdered in 1985.
Leakey’s final protege was Birute Galdikas, a 25-year-old whom he sent to Indonesia in 1971, a year before he died, to study orangutans. With a master’s degree in anthropology, Galdikas was better trained to undertake the project than her predecessors, and the scientific precision she brought to her studies is generally acknowledged to be far superior.
Galdikas’ accomplishments have also been impressive. She discovered that, contrary to preconceptions, orangutans have rich social relations. She documented the wide extent of male competition and explored the orangutan mating system. She was the first Westerner to observe a female orangutan giving birth.
Despite those achievements, Galdikas remains an obscure figure, far less widely known than Goodall or Fossey.
Some observers suspect that the startling breadth of the revelations of Goodall and Fossey may have led a satiated public to believe that they already knew everything of interest about primates. By this reckoning, Galdikas’ findings were predictable.
Others, more critical, charge that Galdikas has not published enough papers and books about her work. Most of the findings of her colleagues and students have been written in Indonesian, a language read by few Western scientists. By this reckoning, her findings were inaccessible.
Finally, critics argue, Galdikas has been too active in her efforts to return orangutans captured for pets to their native habitats, thereby introducing behaviors learned from humans into the community in the wild. By this reckoning, her results are tainted.
Galdikas’ jungle career, along with those of Goodall and Fossey, is the subject of a recent book, “Walking With the Great Apes,” by science writer Sy Montgomery. Galdikas also spoke with The Times while she was in Los Angeles recently raising funds for the Orangutan Foundation International, which helps support her research and conservation efforts.
Together, these accounts provide a fascinating portrait of a complex, dedicated scientist who has provided remarkable insight into the behavior of a misunderstood animal.
Galdikas first met Louis Leakey in the late 1960s when he lectured at UCLA, where she was working on her master’s degree--and from which she subsequently received her doctorate.
She had already planned to work as in Indonesia, saving her money for a trip to study orangutans. After their meeting, Leakey agreed to obtain financing for her.
When Galdikas and her then-husband, Rod Brindamour, arrived in Indonesia in October, 1971, they established a base camp, which she named Camp Leakey, along the Sekoyner-Cannon River in Tanjung Puting National Park. The park is a 650,000-acre reserve on the south coast of Borneo--a site she has occupied for 20 years.
Galdikas quickly overturned a hypothesis of early researchers that the orangutans were solitary animals, unlike chimpanzees and gorillas. “When I went into the field, people said they were totally solitary,” Galdikas said. But she discovered that the animals did have significant social relations.
Among her most important discoveries was the orangutan mating system. “Basically, there seem to be two tactics that orangutans employ. One is consortship and one is forced copulation. That’s not all that’s different from human beings,” she noted, suggesting that even deviant human sexual activity--including rape--may have deep instinctual roots.
Consortship begins when a male booms his vocalization, called the long call, through the forest. A receptive female will respond, and the two will find each other. As in many other species, normally shy females can become quite brazen while they are receptive. Once, Galdikas saw a female named Beth approach a prime male, shake a vine in his face, slap his stomach and tweak his genitals. When this failed to arouse his attention, she urinated on his head. Eventually he went with her.
A pair will travel through the forest for two to 10 days, feeding, nuzzling and mating for as long as the female is receptive. When she is no longer receptive, she leaves.
“It is and it isn’t like human courtship,” she said. As in humans, “there is a great deal of female selection, but the male-male competition is much more fierce and much more direct” than scientists believed. Researchers had previously thought that orangutans did not fight, but she found that, like all other primates, they do.
Forced copulations usually involve immature males, who attack adult females. In many ways, it is like human rape: The female resists fiercely and tries to bite her attacker. She also emits a peculiar, distressed grunt that Galdikas has never heard in any other context.
When Galdikas arrived at Tanjung Puting, native Indonesians told her that orangutans occasionally raped human females as well. She did not believe it--until one came into her camp and raped an Indonesian cook. Today, she warns women visitors who are menstruating to carry a club and not to venture among male orangutans in the camp.
One possible reason for the rapes, she said, is because it takes so long for males to mature in the rain forest. In zoos, captive male orangutans usually become mature at age 13 or 14. In the rain forest of Borneo, however, they do not become mature until age 20, only then developing the cheek pads and large throat sac of a male adult. Although they are capable of sexual activity before that, females in heat are not attracted to them, so their only sexual option becomes force.
Why the delayed maturity? “Well, probably real life is a lot harder than a zoo,” she said. “In the forest, they have to keep out of the way of all the (adult) males. That impairs both their physical and emotional development.”
Wild orangutans also have a very long birth interval, “the longest of any animal in the wild that has been studied,” Galdikas said. “On the average, a wild orangutan female in Tanjung Puting gives birth to one infant every seven to eight years. . . . Even elephants, which are so much bigger, have a shorter birth interval. The reason (orangutans) have this is because nothing preyed on them before human beings did.”
Another discovery is that orangutans rarely eat meat, but do eat fruit, bark, leaves and insects--lots of insects. “Nobody else has ever recognized that. For weeks at a time, insects will be the main component of their diet,” primarily when the types they like are in abundance. This suggests that, in the past, insects have been a major component of the human diet.
Galdikas also looked carefully for signs of tool use because that ability has often been cited as the primary characteristic that distinguishes humans from other primates. She has seen very little, really nothing more than a male breaking off a dead branch and using it to scratch his behind. “But, a bit more importantly, they manipulate things in their environment” in a manner that requires intellect equivalent to that required for tool use.
For example, they process some food before they eat it. She cites a fruit that has a very sticky sap. The orangutans will pick them and place them on their sides or upside down on the ground so that all the sap runs out. Only later do they eat the fruit, when they will no longer get the sap all over them.
They also make fans of leaves or branches to use as umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain. “Strictly speaking, that’s not tool use because it remains attached to the (tree),” but it requires the same intellectual processes. These results, combined with Goodall’s and Fossey’s, indicate that development of the ability to use tools does not mark the dividing line between primates and early humans.
Camp Leakey has grown considerably in 30 years. Today, Galdikas employs 30 Indonesians there and another 10 at a second camp, devoted to returning confiscated and donated pet orangutans to the wild. The camp is also host to groups of 12 to 14 Westerners at a time, volunteers who, under the auspices of Earthwatch--which is now the primary source of her funding--pay to come and help with the research for two weeks.
Her personal life has also changed dramatically. She and Brindamour were divorced, and in 1981, Galdikas married Pak Bohap bin Jalan, a native Dayak who speaks no English and has never left Borneo. They are seemingly an odd couple. She is a member of Bat Conservation International; he shoots them with a traditional blowpipe and poisoned darts and eats them. She is dedicated to protecting orangutans; his people eat them routinely. They have three children.
Galdikas is accepting of his dietary habits, drawing a careful distinction between hunting by Dayaks as a source of food and the deaths of wildlife caused by indiscriminate hunting, capture of pets and deforestation. “He’s a carnivore and proud of it,” she said. “This is part of a longstanding hunting tradition.” Bohap is, however, now a member of the board of the Orangutan Foundation International.
Meanwhile, her concerns have expanded beyond research to preservation and protection. She has fought hard to ensure that the animals have a protected reserve in Tanjung Puting.
She has also worked with governments around the world to reintroduce captive orangutans into the rain forest. Her group has already returned more than 50 animals, and an equal number are now in her camp awaiting return. Many of them have to be nursed back to health, and all have to be disease-free before they are introduced into the jungle.
She said orangutans have been a faddish pet among people in Taiwan. The Orangutan Foundation estimates that between 700 and 1,000 orangutans are kept as pets there. Many owners, tired of damage to their homes, have simply turned the animals loose on the street.
Most experts say that five or six orangutans die for every one that is brought into captivity. “That means that 5,000 to 7,000 have died” just to provide pets for Taiwan alone, she said. “That’s very discouraging. Until last year, I went on record over and over again arguing that what was destroying orangutans was habitat destruction. Now it looks like this incredible poaching, this incredible killing of mothers for their infants, may be playing an even bigger role.”