Outside magazine, May 1998
The Jungle Took Her
Twenty-seven years ago a young Canadian woman went to Borneo seeking a sort of paradise, a place where she could study the mysterious red ape, gather science, garner respect and fame. And for a time, Biruté Galdikas found it, claiming a place alongside Fossey and Goodall in the triad of great primatologists. But her Eden has since been
fouled, and the story at the heart of that adulteration — a tale unfolding still — might have sprung from Conrad’s pen, save one detail: This story’s true.
By Linda Spalding
Our bright blue kelotok eased its way up the Sekonyer River, the loud putt-putt of its engine throwing an echo against the nipa palms along the bank. The narrow ribbon of black water was bordered on both sides by a great thrill of green that led away in all directions — borderless, inarticulate, astonishing. Beyond the fringe of
palms, enormous white butterflies drifted erratically through the forest like pieces of tissue, and an orchestra of birds whistled and shrieked, an orchestra in which each instrument played a different tune. For the Melayu who live here, the forest guarantees all necessities: Rattan for traps. Pandanus for baskets. Everything except rice, which is grown in
slash-and-burn plots temporarily stolen from the trees.
It was June of 1995, and I was traveling upriver with Riska Orpa Sari, my translator and guide, into Tanjung Puting National Park. These 1,173 square miles of tropical heath forest and mangrove swampland in southern Borneo are home to perhaps a thousand wild orangutans and more zoological diversity than in any other part of species-rich Borneo. Here, fish climb
trees and spit at flying insects. Wild pigs grow beards, deer bark, and trees ooze caustic sap that burns the skin. Here, land is born when seedlings root themselves to silt. Silt becomes mud. Mud becomes peat, and peat becomes forest. With a pH of 4.0, the dark, tea-colored water is anything but sweet.
Along the way, we spotted a young male orangutan, apparently wild. For a brief moment, he stared down at us from a branch — an intrusive stare, and yet one seemingly without judgment, the stare of a primate who shares 97 percent of our DNA. It’s a stare developed over ten million years of looking for edibles in distant trees by bringing each particle of the
forest slowly into clarity. The fruit stare, it’s been called. Normally, an orangutan peers not into human eyes, but into a thousand shades of green, and pulls one piece of color into focus. Is it ready? He moves his eyes a few inches and repeats the gaze. Closer. He cocks his head and begins again, willing the fruit to readiness as a cat wills the mouse out from
behind the stove.
At last, after six hours on the river, we reached our destination: Camp Leakey, a jumble of ramshackle cabins set back in a rainforest clearing, and one of the historic landmarks of primatology. It was here, on November 6, 1971, that a 25-year-old Ph.D. candidate, a Canadian of Lithuanian parentage named Biruté M. F. Galdikas, climbed out of a dugout canoe,
set up housekeeping in an abandoned bark hut, and began to study wild orangutans. She named the place after her mentor, paleontologist Louis B. Leakey, who had tapped her to come to Borneo to learn what she could about the great red apes in the hope of shedding light on man’s distant ancestors. Like Leakey’s other protégées, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey,
Galdikas tracked her subjects for days and weeks, learning what they ate, where they slept, how they raised their young. This kind of patient, sustained observation in the field was a new form of research, one for which Leakey believed women were particularly well suited. The three, who became friends, would come to be known as Leakey’s Angels.
Galdikas lived here full-time with her husband, Rod Brindamour, for the better part of a decade, tracking wild orangutans on what she called her “follows”while also caring for orphaned and ex-captive orangutans — animals that conservation officials would bring her from time to time because they didn’t know what else to do — as she prepared them to return
to the forest. Her life at Camp Leakey came to revolve almost exclusively around orangutan births, deaths, feedings, illnesses, miscarriages, feuds. In 1976 she and Brindamour had their own child, a boy they named Binti, and began to raise him under the fronds of Camp Leakey with baby orangutans for playmates.
Galdikas’s earliest brush with fame came in 1975, when she wrote a cover story about her work for National Geographic. By 1978 she had gathered enough data to write her Ph.D. dissertation. (One academic review called it “monumental.”) By the end of the decade, Galdikas had become the toast of conservation circles, her work featured in
television documentaries and soon in another National Geographic cover story. She went on the lecture circuit, appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and was celebrated in newspaper and magazine articles. In 1982, in response to her conservation efforts and ceaseless lobbying, the Indonesian government declared Tanjung Puting a
national park. Four years later, she widened her circle of influence by founding the Orangutan Foundation International, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to the preservation of this endangered species. Only about 30,000 wild orangutans remain, all of them on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
But Camp Leakey was the place she kept coming back to, the place that she often described as her Eden, a refuge inhabited by the one primarily arboreal great ape. When I first set eyes on Camp Leakey in 1995, however, it did not seem to be the place I had heard so much about. We pulled up to the long, hot dock and moored the kelotok, expecting to be met by one of
Galdikas’s famous orangutans, the ones that have stayed near the camp and grown accustomed to tourists. The silence was startling, and the place had the appearance of a deserted Bible camp. A rickety wooden observation tower seemed to list to one side. We took the beaten path up to old wood cabins, their blue-framed windows closed tight against the jungle. Along the
way we spotted a dead cat, grown soggy from the afternoon rains. There was no sign of orangutan life up in the branches, or on the ground. We wandered past an orangutan cemetery where a few carved wooden markers stood in a plot of shaggy grass. The sky was an ominous gray, intensifying the feeling of emptiness.
Near the rangers’ cabin a sign read:
DON’T TAKE ANYTHING EXCEPT FOTO.
DON’T LEAVE ANYTHING EXCEPT TRACE.
DON’T BRING ANYTHING EXCEPT MEMORY.
Orangutan Foundation International literature describes Galdikas’s research here as “the longest, most detailed, uninterrupted study of wild orangutans ever conducted.” Yet no other soul (human or orangutan) seemed to be around, and by all outward appearances the place was abandoned.
When a water taxi pulled up to the dock and a young man in his midtwenties and wearing the khaki uniform of the Indonesian Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Department hopped out, we were only too glad to see him. His name was Abdul Muin and he was a government veterinarian specializing in orangutans. I explained that I was writing about Galdikas and her
work and asked him why the place looked so deserted.
“Mrs. Biruté?” He sounded surprised. “She has not had a research permit to work here since 1993.”
No research permit?
“Not since 1993. Not here at Camp Leakey or anywhere else.”
I let this sink in. Galdikas had had disagreements with the Ministry of Forestry in the past, and officials had threatened to revoke her research permit several times in the early 1990s. But if Galdikas had indeed been cast out of her Eden, neither her writings nor her representatives offered any hint of it. In fact, the OFI continues to offer expensive excursions
on which ecotourists visit this famous site and contribute to Galdikas’s “ongoing” research.
“And why was her permit taken away?” I asked.
Muin replied, “The park requires reports every three months, but she never sent them. We had no idea what condition the orangutans were in or what research she was conducting — if any. In any case, Camp Leakey is not her property, although she will tell you that it is. It’s a small part of the whole park. Her assistants, the ones who do her ‘research,’
whatever that is, are not scientists. Sometimes we suspect she is not doing much of anything except making money from tourism.” Muin cast his eye on the forlorn camp. “Mrs. Biruté,” he said, “lives in a world of her own.”
MUIN’S TERSE ASSESSMENT OF THE SITUATION WAS DEVASTATING to me. From my home in Toronto, I’d spent the better part of six months learning everything I could about Biruté Galdikas. I was fascinated by this woman who had largely given up the comforts and familiarities of her Western world for a hard, hot life in the world’s second largest rainforest, this
fecund world of swelling and subsiding, birth and death. I had read her 1995 memoir, Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo, a book that sheds much light on her pioneering work in the seventies and early eighties but then curiously trails off around the mideighties, leaving readers to wonder how her research, her
rehabilitation projects, and her campaign to save the orangutan had evolved since then — and how she had responded to a decade of escalating environmental crisis in her adopted country, with its rapacious logging and destructive mining.
Much like the apes she follows, Galdikas, 54, is widely said to be elusive, inscrutable, hard to pin down. When she’s not unreachable in the remote precincts of Borneo, she’s usually on the move in North America, giving lectures, meeting with her lieutenants at OFI headquarters, soliciting funds. Despite her teaching and her rather frenetic schedule of public
appearances, Galdikas has managed to keep a profile that is somehow vague and inchoate, as if viewed through a screen of dense foliage.
I had become intrigued by the idea of writing a book about Galdikas’s work in Borneo. The notion of this woman and the swamp and the forest around her reawakened thoughts that had been on my mind for years: We seem to be wandering outside nature, but aren’t we made of the same coils of DNA as everything living? Aren’t our closest relatives the great apes, the
chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans? I now sensed a way to heed Rousseau’s prescription for us who have drifted so far from our origins — that we need to make two journeys, one to a place where life is still uncorrupted and another into the self. After all, Galdikas had written in Reflections of Eden that “every trip into the field is also a journey into
By following Galdikas, then, perhaps I could accomplish both journeys. Even if she is inscrutable, I thought, Galdikas might lead me to an understanding of how we Homo sapiens must look, in our exile, to the many eyes watching from the trees.
I knew that Galdikas was an extraordinarily busy person, and yet I imagined that if I persisted long enough, a meeting of some sort could be arranged. I wrote to her in Borneo and eventually spoke to her by phone at her office at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. Then, in the spring of 1995, I flew to Los Angeles, where she was promoting her memoir, and finally
met her in a bookstore in Manhattan Beach.
Galdikas is a heavyset woman with graying hair and a round, implacable face. She has an odd way of seeming immobile: Her dark eyes, set behind large glasses, appear not to blink, and her mouth barely moves when she speaks. She looks like an altogether different person from the lithe, dark-haired young beauty she was in the early days at Camp Leakey. In old pictures
from that time she looks to me like someone I might have known, a fellow child of the sixties running away to islands, chasing dreams.
After the reading I stood in line, introduced myself to Galdikas, and presented my copy of Reflections of Eden for her to sign. “Oh,” she said, peering at me over her glasses when I told her my name, “you’re here.”
“I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.”
She smiled briefly and then signed her name.
“And I wrote to you,” I said. “Remember?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “That’s right.” She pushed her glasses back up on her nose.
Her OFI colleague Nancy Briggs had promised me time with Galdikas, but now Briggs seemed to have changed her mind. “Biruté,” she said with a ring of authority in her voice, “you come with me.” To me she said quietly, “There’s not going to be a book, if that’s what you’re writing. She’s already done the story of her life.”
For a moment I wondered who was in charge of that life, Galdikas or her OFI representatives. Despite Briggs’s objections, however, I managed to coax Galdikas to come out for a meal a few days later. I’d driven over to the OFI headquarters in Brentwood, located in offices in the house Galdikas’s mother lives in. “Binti and Jane are dying for tacos,” Galdikas said
after she greeted me, referring to her son and daughter. It turned out that Binti, then 18 and a student in Vancouver, was visiting. So I led the three of them out to my little rented Geo and drove off, astonished at my sudden good fortune.
We slid into a booth at a very ordinary Mexican restaurant a few doors from a Pic ‘N’ Save, and everyone ordered. Binti was listening to a Walkman and seemed to be completely uninterested in any discussions that touched on the topic of orangutans. I wondered if he might still be trying to live down the famous image of himself as a toddler bathing in a washtub with
an infant orangutan on a 1980 cover of National Geographic.
I turned to Galdikas, who seemed distracted and tired. “Listen, I’d really like to talk to you about Borneo,” I said. “And your work.”
“What about Borneo?”
“Well, I’d like to come out there. As soon as I can.”
“You can go this summer with an OFI group. We only work with teams.”
“They told me you won’t be there this summer; you’ll be in Canada.”
“That doesn’t matter. Someone will be there. Someone just as interesting as I.”
Our meals arrived and we ate the food in a businesslike way. I tried to raise the topic of writing about her work, when behind us, on a TV screen, something caught Galdikas’s eye. “It’s Karen Carpenter!” she said with a little flurry of interest, and Binti craned around for a look.
“Look how skinny she is!” Galdikas exclaimed. “It’s absolutely horrible. Binti, look — that’s what this society does to women. Anorexia is not a problem in Indonesia.”
The waiter cleared away our plates. “I really would like to come out to Borneo,” I said. “We could do a tutorial kind of thing. I’d pay you as though it were a class.”
“You have money?”
I said, “I have money for this.”
Quietly assessing me, she said, “Maybe we could just do a team of one. Maybe. Why not? I’ll think about it. I’m going to London for two weeks, but when I get back, I’ll contact you. We’ll see.”
So that was that. While I was waiting to hear from Galdikas, I began calling a number of people who had worked with her over the years — primatologists, hangers-on, volunteers. The latter were a dedicated set of international do-gooders, most of them women, often with money to burn and lots of free time on their hands. The majority of these OFI devotees seemed
to be in awe of Galdikas and waxed nostalgic about the weeks they’d spent at Camp Leakey. Some of them called Galdikas “Ibu,” an honorific that means “mother” in Indonesian.
“She hasn’t written me,” I would tell my new friends, as the weeks went by. “She hasn’t called.”
“She’s testing you,” one of the former volunteers said. “Don’t worry. She wants to see if you’re serious.”
“Loyalty,” another one said. “It’s her big thing.”
Finally I decided that I would go to Borneo whether I heard from Galdikas or not. The people at OFI told me that the only way to get there was through their official tour, which is booked through a travel outfitter. The trip lasts 11 days and costs $2,000 — almost all of which goes to OFI — plus an additional $1,500 or so for airfare. Once you’re on the
ground, you’re expected to “volunteer” your time in some way, usually by tracking wild orangutans and taking copious notes about the animals’ movements, diet, activity, and so forth — notes to be written up and incorporated into reports that go to Galdikas herself, raw data for her future publications.
I somehow doubted that the observations of ecotourists like myself could contribute much that was meaningful to the rigorous science of primatology. And I’d never had good experiences with group tours. Anyway, this one was too expensive.
Then I learned from a primatologist that there was a simpler and cheaper way to visit Tanjung Puting: I could fly to the city of Pangkalan Bun, hire a boat with a driver in the river town of Kumai, and then head up the Sekonyer River on my own. Tanjung Puting is a national park; anyone with a visa and a tourist permit can go there. Though OFI officials studiously
failed to mention this “freelance” travel option and seemed to regard it as mildly subversive, this is what I decided to do.
In the end, I would make not one, but three trips to Borneo, between June 1995 and May 1997. I would meet volunteers, government officials, Dayak trackers, primatologists, park rangers, passionate ecotourists, and plenty of troubled orangutans. My “follow” would take me deep into the rainforest, and with each trip I would come away with conclusions far darker and
more disturbing than I had ever thought possible.
PANGKALAN BUN, WHERE I FIRST SET FOOT IN BORNEO, IS A HUMID, bustling city of about 15,000 people set on the lowlands near the southern coast. By odd coincidence, I was booked on an interisland flight from Djakarta along with one of the OFI tour groups. At the Pangkalan Bun airport, these OFI volunteers were met by Galdikas’s close friend and right-hand woman,
Charlotte Grimm. “Someone just as interesting as I,” Galdikas had said, so I looked her over.
A stout woman in her early forties, Grimm bears a striking physical resemblance to Galdikas. Like her, Grimm is now married to a handsome, younger Dayak, by whom she has had two children. Her husband and Galdikas’s are nephew and uncle, so she sometimes introduces herself as Galdikas’s niece. Grimm, a former teacher, came to Tanjung Puting as a tourist in 1984 and
kept coming back. She describes herself as a volunteer. Both women have homes in Pasir Panjang, a small town about 20 minutes from Pangkalan Bun.
While Grimm collected her charges and headed off for the rainforest, I met Riska, a cheerful young Dayak woman in her late twenties who reserved a kelotok, helped me buy food for our ten-day journey, and took us through the business of obtaining our permits.
Riska and I drove out to Pasir Panjang to satisfy some compulsion I felt to see Galdikas’s house, even though there was no chance that I would encounter her there, since she was back in Canada. Though Galdikas’s talks in Los Angeles had left the impression that her house was located in a traditional Dayak village, I could see that Pasir Panjang was a town with
streets and curbs and satellite dishes sticking up above the few remaining trees. I could also see that, compared to the houses around it — compared to anything within miles — the Galdikas manse was very grand, set back amid trees and painted white with a red tile roof. The property is surrounded by a high whitewashed wall.
We pulled through the iron gates and parked in the driveway. Riska, who knew many of the Dayaks who work for Galdikas, walked up to the house and spoke to a woman standing near the front door.
“Nobody’s home?” I asked when Riska returned.
“There are some women and girls working, doing cooking and cleaning and taking care of the baby orangutans in the back of the house.”
“Here? Baby orangutans?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve been back there a couple of times. The babies are all around the place.” She shook her head. “It’s not a good place for orangutans. There aren’t many trees around, and the road is so close. It’s illegal for her to keep them here, actually. But no one can make her stop.”
Later that morning we headed upriver in the kelotok through the nipa palms. Our first stop was Tanjung Harapan, a clearing between river and forest and the first of three orangutan rehabilitation field stations administered by the Ministry of Forestry. Tanjung Harapan had once been a tiny village, but in 1977, after Galdikas succeeded in persuading officials that it
was pointless to create a wildlife preserve if they were going to have villages located inside it, the government relocated the population outside the preserve. Now there is a simple station in its place. The only remnant of the village is an abandoned graveyard.
As it happened, the OFI group was also at Tanjung Harapan. Everyone had gathered near the dock because the park rangers were about to start feeding a group of ex-captive orangutans that remained dependent on food provided by humans. The rangers were wandering through the forest, loudly calling out names: “Melly! Davida!” We broke into groups of two or three, dashing
up paths, looking up into trees. Hoping to be the first to see the hungry orphans, we kept meeting one another in the darkness behind roots and leaves.
“Hello. Seen one yet?”
After we regrouped, it seemed to me that Charlotte Grimm was annoyed at all this sudden camaraderie between me and her charges, and I wondered if perhaps we, with our own kelotok and guide, were jumping into the fray too quickly and making it look too easy.
Eventually three juvenile orangutans came down from the trees. Milk was put into a large plastic bowl, and they squatted at the rim and dipped their heads in. As the bowl emptied, they began to pick it up in their hands and pass it around. The serenity of the scene was interrupted a few minutes later when a young male orangutan named Gistok grabbed me and, for a few
terrifying minutes, literally dragged me toward the trees before a ranger intervened.
That night we went across the river and checked into the Rimba Lodge, a hotel, built in 1991, where all OFI tourists stay. It’s a nicely designed complex, with a dining hall, a lobby appointed in rattan furniture, and hardwood decks. The organization delicately avoided the subject, but Galdikas’s and Grimm’s husbands reportedly owned a 49 percent share in the Rimba
Lodge. It was evidently one of the places where Galdikas has staked her claim to ecotourism.
Over a cup of coffee in the dining hall, I had a brief conversation with Grimm’s husband, whose name is Uil. “I own part of this place,” he said, looking around the dining room proudly.
“Really?” I said.
Grimm, who saw what was going on, walked over and sternly pulled him away from me. “He’ll be right back,” she promised, but I never saw him again.
FOR MOST OF THE 1970’S, BIRUTÉ GALDIKAS’S STOCK-IN-TRADE WAS following and watching orangutans in the malarial rainforest, crouched with a notebook and a machete. The conventional wisdom among primatologists was that orangutans simply couldn’t be studied, at least not in any prolonged or systematic fashion. Unlike chimps and gorillas, they weren’t social, and
they roamed quietly over immense swaths of the rainforest, nesting each night in the treetops. While Jane Goodall could stay largely in one place and habituate herself to an extended family of chimps at her Gombe research station in Tanzania, spending weeks observing all manner of complex social interactions, Galdikas had to make do with fragmentary scenes dimly
glimpsed through a scrim of foliage. On those rare occasions when one orangutan met another in the canopy, as often as not nothing would happen. “They move past each other in the trees with barely a glance,” Galdikas wrote, “almost like two New Yorkers rushing past each other on a crowded street.”
While Rod Brindamour spent the days hacking out trails, building ironwood boardwalks, and maintaining the camp, Galdikas went off on her “follows.” She gave her study subjects names — Beth, Cara, Carl, Howard, Throatpouch, Georgina — and came to know their foraging habits and personality quirks. The days and weeks of sustained observation began to pay
off. Galdikas became the first primatologist to witness a wild orangutan birth and the first to document an orangutan using a stick as a tool in the wild. She and Brindamour made the first recording of a “long call,” the haunting vocalization, often compared to a lion’s roar, that male orangutans perform, possibly to declare the extent of their terrain and to attract
females. She cataloged hundreds of plants and insects that form the orangutan diet. In one epic follow, she tracked a single female orangutan for 31 consecutive days.
Galdikas’s decade-long marriage to Rod Brindamour ended in 1979 — he had fallen in love with their Javanese nanny, who he subsequently married, and he’d grown weary of their life in the jungle. In 1981 Galdikas married Pak Bohap, a Dayak farmer seven years her junior who worked as a tracker at Camp Leakey and who still hunts with a blowpipe and poison darts.
Galdikas and Bohap have had two children: Fred, now 15, and 13-year-old Jane, who was named after Goodall, her godmother.
Though by the early nineties Galdikas had stopped living full-time at Camp Leakey, she still often described it as her private refuge and base camp, her home away from home. But now, after we’d docked at Camp Leakey, explored the nearly deserted premises, and learned from Muin, the government veterinarian, that Galdikas’s research permit had been revoked two years
earlier, I had much to ponder. I walked past the dining hall and Galdikas’s cabin, trying to imagine how it came to pass that a woman of such intelligence and accomplishment, a woman possessed of such power that she could move whole villages that happened to be set in the path of her cause, had lost so much — had lost, or so it seemed, the one place that mattered
most to her. How had she let this all slip away?
The chain of events that led to Galdikas’s present predicament can be traced back to her early involvement with a project that has become her leading passion: the rehabilitation of orphaned and ex-captive orangutans with the hope of returning them to the wild. By the time Galdikas and Brindamour arrived in Borneo, the Indonesian government had long since outlawed
the ownership of orangutans, but the laws were rarely if ever enforced. Orangutans, especially baby orangutans, were considered valuable commodities, and they were much in demand on the global black market. Indonesian generals liked to keep them around as status symbols, and Taiwanese businessmen bought them as pets. Other orangutans ended up in circuses, zoos, medical
research facilities, or the hands of the occasional Hollywood producer.
While the young Galdikas was doing her groundbreaking research in Borneo, the low-grade threat from traditional Dayak hunting of orangutans was being superseded by the impact of large-scale development emanating from Djakarta. Powerful cartels, with the blessing of well-connected politicians and military officers, had begun to log, mine, and farm the rainforests of
Borneo at an alarming clip. Once remote areas of Kalimantan — the southern and eastern part of Borneo, owned by Indonesia — had begun to see a steady influx of immigrants from Djakarta and elsewhere on the overcrowded island of Java, a process that gained new momentum in 1979 when the Indonesian government put in place a sweeping plan, financed by World
Bank loans, to resettle one million Javanese on Borneo. For the first time, humans in substantial numbers were coming into direct contact with orangutans, and in these encounters the orangutan always lost.
Just a few weeks after her arrival in 1971, Galdikas took possession of an orphaned ex-captive male orangutan that she named Sugito. Although the idea of “rehabilitating” ex-captives was (and still is) largely experimental, Galdikas hoped to raise Sugito at the camp and gradually introduce him to the ways of the wild orangutan. But she soon discovered that not only
had she acquired an extremely frightened and emotionally needy infant, she had acquired an appendage. “Infant orangutans are genetically programmed to cling to their mothers, and cling Sugito did,” Galdikas wrote in Reflections of Eden. “There were moments when I glanced down at Sugito holding on to me, and for a split second I forgot that
he wasn’t human and wasn’t my own biological child.”
Sugito’s presence quickly put a strain on her relationship with Brindamour. The infant slept between Galdikas and her husband, frequently wetting the bed at night; if Brindamour so much as moved in Galdikas’s direction, Sugito squealed in jealousy and bit him.
Several months later, Galdikas took on three more ex-captive orangutans, and her life became consumed with the daily toil of surrogate motherhood. She had become “addicted,” as she later admitted, to baby orangutans, and the pace of her other work slowed. By 1979, when Brindamour told Galdikas that he’d had enough, Camp Leakey was a kind of tropical romper room,
populated by any number of unpredictable orangutans that would sometimes rob the storehouse, smash windows, eat toothpaste, drink shampoo, and jump on visitors’ backs. Most of it was harmless, if annoying, but as they grew older and stronger, the ex-captives could become dangerous.
During my first trip to Borneo I met Carey Yeager, a senior conservation biologist with the World Wildlife Fund who specializes in proboscis monkeys and who spent two years working with Galdikas at Camp Leakey. Yeager related her misadventure with an orangutan named Rico, an adolescent male who had developed a reputation as a biter. One morning, Rico stole a bar of
soap from a female tourist, and the woman tried to take it back. Suddenly Rico attacked her and began biting. Yeager, who was bathing nearby, grabbed a stick and rushed over. Trying to protect the frightened tourist, Yeager whacked at Rico, but the stick snapped in two. “From that moment,” she said, “he knew I was weaker than he was. And with primates everything is a
test of power. They are always busy establishing hierarchy. Once they find out one of us isn’t strong, they don’t forget.”
A week later, Rico caught Yeager alone on the dock and attacked. “He grabbed my ankles with his feet and just started biting,” Yeager recalled. “I yelled. It took about five minutes for somebody to get down to the dock, but by then he had bitten through the muscles and tendons of my thigh.”
For Yeager, almost as troubling as Rico’s behavior was Galdikas’s reaction, or rather nonreaction, to the incident. “Biruté wouldn’t do anything with Rico,” Yeager said. “That is, until he bit her. Then she sent him to the other side of the river.”
In a documentary produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the early 1990s, Galdikas stops off at the Tanjung Harapan field station to visit with an ex-captive named Herbie, who like Rico has a habit of attacking people. But Galdikas contends that Herbie’s violent tendencies are in a way justifiable, when one considers his past. “As an infant,” she
explains to the camera, “Herbie watched as his mother was killed, and then cut up into strips and dried in order to make orangutan jerky. This is why I really don’t mind if Herbie occasionally takes a bite out of somebody. One kind of feels that perhaps he deserves to do so.”
Carey Yeager told me that problems like those of Rico and Herbie crop up all too frequently with rehabs, which are usually the products of traumatized infancies and grow up to be understandably confused about whether they’re human or orangutan. “I’m not afraid of wild orangutans,” Yeager said. “They don’t want anything to do with you. But the rehabs have no fear of
people. They’re dangerous. No infant taken from its mother is ever going to be anything but mentally damaged, no matter what happens.”
The most astonishing incident resulting from the aggressive tendencies of Galdikas’s ex-captive orangutans took place when an ex-captive male named Gundul attacked a Dayak woman who was working as a cook at Camp Leakey. In Reflections of Eden, Galdikas describes how she tried in vain to pull Gundul away. She continues, “I began to
realize that Gundul did not intend to harm the cook, but had something else in mind. The cook stopped struggling. ‘It’s all right,’ she murmured. She lay back in my arms, with Gundul on top of her. Gundul was very calm and deliberate. He raped the cook. As he moved rhythmically back and forth, his eyes rolled upward to the heavens.”
As in Yeager’s story of Rico’s attack, Galdikas, in her reaction to the rape, seems almost unbelievably blasé. “Gundul was behaving like a normal subadult orangutan male,” she writes. “Nonetheless, his behavior was worrisome.”
IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES, WITH THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE PAST decade behind her, Galdikas began the hectic second act of her career. Newly remarried, she started a family with Pak Bohap and traveled more often in order to raise money for her orangutan rehabilitation work. Her early grants and fellowships began to dry up, and she accepted a series of academic appointments
in North America and seemed to have less and less time for the wild orangutans of Tanjung Puting. She became consumed with the general cause of rehabilitation, and rather than continuing to rely upon the orthodox scientific funding that had previously supported her work, she inaugurated an ecotourism scheme that dovetailed with her rehabilitation efforts. In 1984,
Galdikas struck a deal with Earthwatch, the Boston-based educational travel organization, in which it booked trips for ecotourist volunteers, paying customers eager to help care for Galdikas’s ex-captive orangutans and to tramp through the rainforest to gather more data on her wild orangutan subjects. Earthwatch agreed to contribute about $70,000 a year in the form of
The trips drew enthusiastic converts to the cause, but some of the researchers and volunteers who worked with Galdikas came away feeling that her growing zealotry bore unsettling similarities to the arc of Dian Fossey’s fatal involvement with her threatened gorillas. There are stories of Galdikas confiscating illegally owned orangutans from the clutches of powerful
Indonesians, and she is said to have made plenty of enemies. In a traditional rural society like Kalimantan, where confrontation is practically unheard-of and where human interactions are governed by an elaborate etiquette of courtesy and indirection, her methods were controversial. But she also had allies among Indonesia’s powerful elite. “She has always shot very
high, using pictures [of herself] with officials to manipulate and threaten lower staff in the field,” claims Willie Smits, a tropical forestry expert and consultant to the government on orangutans.
In 1990, Galdikas’s rehabilitation project turned international in scope when she became a key player in two notorious cases involving the international orangutan trade. On February 20 of that year, six baby orangutans were discovered at the Bangkok airport, tightly packed inside several bird crates. The orangutans had been smuggled out of Borneo to Singapore and
were supposed to be sent to Belgrade. They were severely dehydrated and hadn’t eaten in many days. Soon Galdikas had been called, and photographs of the Bangkok Six, as they came to be known, appeared in newspapers around the world. At Galdikas’s suggestion, Dianne Taylor-Snow, a zookeeper from Fresno, California, who had been a volunteer at Camp Leakey, flew to
Thailand to repatriate the orangutans to Borneo, where it was hoped they could be nursed back to health. “These babies needed 24-hour supervision,” Taylor-Snow recalls. “Two weeks after we got back to Indonesia, the first baby, Bimbo, died. A month later, Ollie died.” In November, the Los Angeles Times reported that only two of the six orangutans were still alive. The
pressure of intense media coverage, and the anguish of watching one infant orangutan after another expire, generated turmoil and acrimony. “We were doing everything we possibly could, but we had orangutan babies dropping like flies,” says Taylor-Snow, who claims that Galdikas “started to panic” at the prospect of negative publicity, accused Taylor-Snow of betraying
her, and even threatened her. By the end of her stay in Indonesia, Taylor-Snow was seriously ill herself, and she returned home embittered and estranged from Galdikas.
Eight months after the rescue of the Bangkok Six, Galdikas became involved in a second high-profile case, this one involving ten orangutans that had been chosen for repatriation to Borneo by officials in Taiwan, where orangutans are still popular pets. The departure of the Taiwan Ten became a colorful international news feature. Taipei schoolchildren sang farewell
songs as the orangutans were loaded onto a plane to Indonesia. Galdikas was quoted extensively, and it became a goodwill story that seemingly went off without a hitch.
What followed, however, was bizarre. Instead of going on to a rehabilitation center in Borneo after the plane landed in Djakarta, the orangutans fell into a bureaucratic limbo. While the government dithered, the animals somehow wound up in a house in Djakarta, where a group of Galdikas’s Indonesian students took over their care and kept them for nearly a year. After
several students tried to spirit the orangutans away in taxis to elude Indonesian authorities, the government finally confiscated the Taiwan Ten, sending seven of them to Wanariset, a new orangutan refuge and rehabilitation center in eastern Borneo. The other three were sent to a primate institute in Bogor, a city not far from Djakarta; two of them had contracted
tuberculosis, and the third had developed hepatitis B.
“I think it was after the Taiwan Ten that Galdikas seriously lost touch with reality,” says Anne Russon, a primate psychologist at Toronto’s York University who spent 15 months in Borneo with Galdikas’s organization and was present during the Taiwan Ten affair. “The case provoked a lot of overt controversy between her and Indonesian officials. The whole situation
got dramatized and exaggerated. Whereas before arrangements were collaborative between Biruté and the forest ministry, now there were open resentments. By early 1992, the relationship had broken down.”
Perhaps even more damaging, the fallout from the Bangkok Six and Taiwan Ten cases further eroded Galdikas’s already tainted reputation among serious primatologists, who were wondering what had become of her research and who took a dim view of sentimental forays into such animal-rescue escapades.
FEW OF THE EARTHWATCH VOLUNTEERS WHO HAD BEEN COMING TO Camp Leakey were aware of Galdikas’s scientific critics. Indeed, they believed that they were providing invaluable assistance to Galdikas’s documentation of wild orangutan behavior.
On their follows in the rainforest, the volunteers were expected to take notes every five minutes for six-and-a-half hours, answering such questions as, Which trail are you on? What direction are you going? What is the weather like? What are the sounds? What is the subject doing? People loved it, and they kept coming, year after year. In a single month, December
1985, Earthwatch volunteers recorded 936 hours observing wild orangutans — more than Galdikas logged in her entire first year at Camp Leakey.
Measured according to the hard, cold protocol of serious primatology, however, the flood of data gathered by these laymen was inevitably suspect. Still, the visitors did make at least one discovery of consequence in the mideighties. According to Sy Montgomery’s 1991 book Walking With the Great Apes, 12 Earthwatchers saw a wild male
orangutan devour four baby flying squirrels, the first time researchers had seen a Bornean orangutan — supposedly vegetarian — consume meat. It seemed to be a significant finding, yet Galdikas has never published it. “I agree, it’s something I should do,” Galdikas told Montgomery. “But it’s number 302 on my list of priorities.”
And what happened to the rest of the volunteers’ field notes?Charlotte Grimm maintains that they have all been meticulously collected, reviewed, and then passed along to the OFI’s Los Angeles headquarters for Galdikas’s personal use. But at least one primatologist who worked with Galdikas for several years said that after the visitors went home, Galdikas used to
throw their reports away. “Oh, she never used them,” the woman said. “It was just something to keep the volunteers busy.” Dianne Taylor-Snow was appalled to find piles of notebooks moldering in a hut. “There were cartloads of notes sitting there, being eaten by roaches,” she recalled.
The amateurish goings-on around Camp Leakey, combined with Galdikas’s failure to publish major new findings from the field, had reduced her to “something of a scientific nonentity,” says Peter S. Rodman, a noted orangutan specialist and professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. “As far as I can see, the majority of her work published since
1975 has been on research she did between 1971 and 1975. For years she’s had orangutans living at her own house. She attracts a lot of attention because the animals themselves are charismatic. But this sort of activity is ridiculous — it’s counter-science.”
While most of the Earthwatchers seemed to cherish their experiences at Tanjung Puting, others came away with disquieting memories. Stories began to circulate that things at Camp Leakey weren’t as they seemed from the safe remove of Galdikas’s slide shows back in America. The camp was woefully mismanaged and ill-supplied, these stories went; the orangutans were
running amok, and Galdikas was a well-meaning but insufferable tyrant. Before I made my second trip to Borneo, in 1996, I spoke to several of these disillusioned former volunteers. “My initial impression of Biruté,” one remarked, “was of a hard, insensitive woman with a will of steel.” Another woman described a walk through the rainforest during which she
vomited several times and became acutely dehydrated, falling farther and farther behind the group, while Galdikas ordered everyone to move along. Later, this volunteer claims, Galdikas pulled out a large canteen and drank from it without offering to share a drop, saying only that it was important to prepare properly for a forest trek.
Other volunteers claimed that Galdikas fostered an atmosphere of paranoia, conspiracy, and even fear. “On my first trip to Borneo,” says former OFI volunteer Michelle Desilets, a California schoolteacher, “Biruté woke me up at three in the morning and asked me to sneak two newly confiscated young orangutans into a secret location in the forest. ‘Before light,
so you don’t get arrested,’ Biruté said. ‘Can we count on you?’ At the time, I was flattered, because she told me we were doing the right thing to engage in a covert ‘rescue’ operation. Only later did I find out doing all this without health precautions or veterinary care was actually bad for the orangutans.” The mood among insiders sometimes turned ugly,
according to Dianne Taylor-Snow, who claims that on one occasion Grimm told her that if she aired criticism of Galdikas, “she’d beat me up.”
Whatever the truth about the inner workings of Galdikas’s operation, anyone who has contact with the OFI for any length of time becomes aware of a fierce group allegiance to its leader and an equally intense sensitivity to even the mildest criticism. Those who express doubts about Galdikas’s methods soon find themselves among the swelling ranks of OFI apostates. For
an organization committed to addressing an urgent, complex environmental crisis, OFI seems to expend a disproportionate amount of its mental energy dealing with internecine battles and launching preemptive strikes against real and suspected enemies. This siege mentality may be an institutional reflection of one of Galdikas’s deepest fears: that her beloved orangutans
could be taken away from her for good.
BY LATE 1992, GALDIKAS WAS ON A COLLISION COURSE WITH REGIONAL authorities of the Forest Protection and Nature Conservation Department. Tanjung Puting park officials had begun to question her methods several years earlier: Might her ex-captives infect the wild population with diseases, such as tuberculosis and hepatitis B? Were they more likely to carry disease with
so many tourists passing through Camp Leakey? For the local officials, it was difficult to know the answers to these questions because, they say, Galdikas often failed to deliver reports and other information that she was required to provide.
Given the labyrinthine quality of Indonesian officialdom, it is nearly impossible to get a definitive account of Galdikas’s peculiar dealings with the Ministry of Forestry. But at the end of a long and circuitous search, I was led to a quiet but determined man named Pak Suprapto, who had been the director of Tanjung Puting National Park in the early nineties. I
recently met Suprapto in Djakarta, where he now holds an administrative post in the Ministry of Forestry, and he summarized his frustrations with Galdikas. “Mrs. Biruté treated the orangutans like people,” Suprapto said. “She carried them, gave them ‘people food,’ and fed them right at the camp. Her work tended to keep the orangutans right there. Even many wild
ones would come in for the feedings.” At Suprapto’s behest, rangers began to move the feeding stations farther and farther out into the forest. Eventually, it was decided that no more ex-captives should be introduced to Camp Leakey and that they should go instead to a station run by Willie Smits at Wanariset, where, Suprapto said, “there is plenty of room, no tourists
allowed, and no wild population to disturb.”
“We tried to work with her,” Suprapto said, “but the situation was untenable. Most of her data was not accurate, or the research never really took place. We had no way of keeping up. She never gave us reports. People gave Mrs. Biruté money with the wrong idea. None of it went to the park or the camp or the orangutans.” Suprapto repeated what Abdul Muin had
told me when I first arrived at Camp Leakey: In 1993, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences revoked Galdikas’s permit to do research in Tanjung Puting. Still, Galdikas continued to come and go at Camp Leakey, often with documentary film crews in tow.
Meanwhile, Earthwatch officials had been having some of the same problems with Galdikas that Suprapto reported, and the controversies surrounding her led to a withdrawal of support. The organization decided to pull its funding and end its trips to Tanjung Puting. “She thinks that everyone is against her,” Earthwatch Europe’s deputy director Andrew Mitchell told a
reporter shortly after the break with Galdikas. “She has failed to give us adequate reports and accounts. My heart goes out to her. It is the same pattern as Dian Fossey. She began as a scientist, but she has become more and more attached to the animals and more involved in conflicts with local people and the authorities. I fear that she is shipwrecking herself.”
To fill the void left by Earthwatch’s departure, the OFI made new arrangements with an adventure-travel company, and the tourists continue to make their way up the Sekonyer River into Tanjung Puting, apparently unaware of Galdikas’s travails.
In January of 1994, the Guardian of London published a highly critical article about the state of her operations. “Camp Leakey is a shambles,” reporter Simon Freeman wrote. “Galdikas has gone.” In an interview with Freeman, Galdikas openly acknowledged her troubles, something she has not done since. She blamed it all on powerful enemies
in Indonesia. “They want to discredit me, destroy Camp Leakey, and send the orangutans off to [Willie Smits’s station in] East Borneo,” Galdikas declared. “Then the logging companies can move in. They killed Dian Fossey, but they are more sophisticated now…. I have been kicked out and have a big problem. I have a long-term visa and have applied for Indonesian
citizenship, but I still need a research permit to work in the park.”
The Guardian article caused a small stir in wildlife conservation circles, but Galdikas’s public image remained largely unscathed. However, the new government restrictions on her operation in Tanjung Puting apparently forced Galdikas to center her rescue and rehabilitation work at her house in Pasir Panjang. Over the last two years,
some volunteers have become concerned that as the number of orangutans kept on Galdikas’s premises has grown, the situation there has spiraled out of control. Michelle Desilets claims that Galdikas had 48 orangutans on her property as of last August. “They were all unofficial,” Desilets asserts. “Galdikas was actually paying for people to bring her orangutans. She made
no arrangements to quarantine them, no arrangements to check them for diseases like hepatitis or TB. But the orangutans kept showing up. And lots of them were dying at her house.”
By this past winter, the number of orangutans living on the grounds of Galdikas’s home had reportedly swelled to 85. Volunteers who have recently worked there posted alarming allegations on Primate-Talk, an Internet forum affiliated with the University of Wisconsin. The orangutans at Galdikas’s house are suffering in “deplorable” and “appalling” conditions, they
said. One noted that she “repeatedly saw movie producers and the like come to the house and handle the orangutans without masks.” According to this volunteer, some of the baby orangutans were being cared for by one of Galdikas’s cooks. “The orangutans seem to become more human-like the longer they are at the house,” she wrote. “From what I have witnessed, I think the
time has come for [Galdikas] to admit that she cannot do it all, and perhaps, those animals would be better served by someone else.” In late February, the Ministry of Forestry began a full-scale investigation of the situation at Galdikas’s house. According to Dwiatmo Siswomartono, the ministry’s director of flora and fauna conservation, her house and grounds have been
inspected and a report is being prepared.
Clearly, there is something desperate about the way Galdikas has taken her stand behind the high walls of her home in Pasir Panjang. Most primatologists are dubious about the efficacy of “rehabilitating” orangutans — even in optimal conditions, much less on the grounds of a private residence in a populated area. Orangutans pass along their survival skills, one
generation to the next. Can a motherless infant, raised by human hands, learn to forage, to travel through the canopy, to teach generations to come? Galdikas has staked her reputation on the hope that they can, and on her own ad hoc methods. Indeed, she claims to have rehabilitated more than 200 orangutans, by all accounts without using the strict quarantine and
isolation criteria that most primatologists insist on. In the absence of rigorous scientific reporting, primate experts say, claims of such remarkable success must be viewed skeptically.
Throughout nearly a decade of turmoil, Galdikas has almost always projected an air of serene confidence, and her schedule of lectures and academic duties does not seem to have been affected. In mid-March, in a talk at Rice University in Houston, she spoke at length about her work, lavishly thanked the Indonesian government for its support, and never alluded to any
of her difficulties. Even as the investigation into her activities intensifies, her true status in Indonesia is difficult to gauge, and she continues to have powerful friends. Last June, Indonesian President Suharto bestowed the Kalpataru (“Hero of the Earth”) Award on Galdikas. She insists that her research is conducted “exactly the same as it’s always been”; the work
is “painstaking” and “very longitudinal,” but goes on uninterrupted.
But the time is approaching when Galdikas will almost certainly have to answer some hard questions — not merely to restore her own tarnished reputation, but for the sake of the wild orangutans that first drew her into the jungle. While ecotourists hug the half-tame and often sickly orangutans by the feeding platforms of Tanjung Puting, while loggers ignore the
protected status of the park and a pall of smoke hangs over the Indonesian archipelago for a second year, the survival of Borneo’s red apes becomes more conjectural with each passing day. Meanwhile Galdikas, the self-appointed savior of the orangutan, seems to have lost her way at this moment of maximum danger. More than ever, the orangutan needs a savior who is not
tangled in a web of obsession, who is accountable to something larger than herself.
I NEVER HEARD FROM BIRUTÉ GALDIKAS, AND in truth, the more I learned about her work, the less I wanted a meeting to occur. But I did have one last fleeting encounter with her. I was at Camp Leakey in February 1996 when I heard that Galdikas would soon be arriving with the actress Stephanie Powers, a veteran conservation activist and philanthropist who wanted
to see the orangutans of Tanjung Puting.
On that journey, Riska and I had shared a kelotok off and on with a dedicated OFI stalwart, a dapper, trimly bearded man in his seventies from New Jersey named Ralph Arbus. Mr. Ralph, as he is affectionately known among volunteers, has been a dedicated follower of the Professor, as he calls Galdikas, for more than a decade. He always carries an expensive camera with
a huge lens, and a heavy bag full of tripods, flash attachments, and other accoutrements.
One afternoon, I happened to be sitting on the bow of our kelotok, dangling my feet in the water and chatting with Mr. Ralph, and I asked him why he kept coming back to CampLeakey, year after year.
“She needs me,” he replied.
We heard a soft purr and, shielding our eyes, we stared and squinted and brought into focus, through all the overhang of sinking sun and pandanus, the prow of the shiny Garuda II, with Biruté Galdikas on board. I could see her on the deck, surrounded by people, including Powers. A boom-box onboard clanged, drowning out the river birds.
From her boat, Galdikas leaned over and spoke to Mr. Ralph. Without a greeting or a smile, she said, “You have those photographs, don’t you?”
Mr. Ralph, who had been waiting for her arrival for three days, replied, “Of course.”
For a second, Galdikas cast a look in my direction. “Hello,” she muttered, and then looked abruptly away. Her boat docked, and she and her entourage marched up the dock and into the team house.
Mr. Ralph, lugging his full arsenal of photographic equipment and sweating profusely in the stuporous heat, climbed onto the dock and started to follow. I went with him, but just then, a British volunteer appeared and informed Mr. Ralph that Galdikas wouldn’t be needing him for several hours. He ignored this and confidently continued toward the team house. Then we
heard one of Galdikas’s workers call out in Indonesian. No translation was required — he was telling Mr. Ralph not to proceed any farther.
We all stood awkwardly under the trees. Then Galdikas appeared, as if to reinforce the man’s warning. Walking toward Mr. Ralph, she said, in a dismissive tone of voice, “Leave your things in the dining hall.”
As Mr. Ralph breathed heavily in the heat and tried to recover his dignity, Galdikas lingered there for a few seconds, glaring at him. Then her focus dissolved and she looked off into the forest, her eyes, set behind her huge glasses, assuming a faraway gaze, a fruit stare — self-contained, abstracted, impossible to read.
Linda Spalding is the author of two novels, Daughters of Captain Cook and The Paper Wife.