Interview: Biruté Mary Galdikas, the great forgotten one. A lifetime dedicated to the defense of orangutans and their habitat
posted in 22 Dec 2023

By Pedro Pozas Terrados (Executive Director GAP Project Spain) – Photos: Orangutan Foundation

Everyone knows the popular Jane Goodall, who has won many awards for her work, but who for years has only given conferences and events wherever the Jane Goodall Institute sends her. Dian Fossey is remembered for being killed when she defended mountain gorillas that poachers were exterminating. Yet, hardly anyone knows Biruté Galdikas, who has been studying and protecting orangutans from the front line for more than 50 years. These three women have been pioneers in the study of the great apes. Goodall with the chimpanzees in Gombe, Fossey with the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains (Rwanda) and Galdikas with the orangutans, which in Malay language means “forest person” or jungle thinkers, as they are also known by the villagers.

It was Louis Leakey, a great paleontologist, archaeologist, writer of recognized prestige, lover and scholar of human evolution, who incentivated each one of them to study the great apes in the field. These three primatologists are also known as “Leakey’s Angels”.

Only Biruté remains in the jungle protecting the orangutans and their habitat in the Research Centre called “Camp Leakey”, created in 1971 and still open today, making it the longest study site ever conducted in the world by a senior researcher on a species other than humans.

Biruté Mary Galdikas, at 77 years old, spends most of her time in the jungle, as she acknowledges, which is perhaps why she is not so well known. She also travels to Canada and the USA, attending to her university responsibilities.

What lacks on the part of science and the governments and organizations that offer international prizes, is that Biruté is not recognized and rewarded as she deserves to be. But for her the only important thing is the defense of orangutans and where they live.

She is the President of the International Orangutan Foundation, Honorary President of the Great Ape Project Spain and member of the Board of Directors of the International Committee of the Global Biological Corridor. She is also a Professor at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia (Canada), Lecturer at Universitas National in Jakarta, Indonesia,  PhD in anthropology and a writer, author of book “Reflections of Eden”. 

Recently her husband passed away and, in spite of his loss, she continued to maintain the Research Centre where her partner always remained by her side.

Her book, “Reflections of Eden”, contains numerous messages to the world, to society, and I cannot help but show some of them in this interview, which is a tribute to a great fighter in the defense of the biodiversity of our planet and of our evolutionary brothers, the orangutans:

“In 1971, when I arrived in Kalimantan, the part of Borneo that belongs to Indonesia, my purpose was to study orangutans in their natural habitat, but I immediately became involved in the rescue and reintegration of free-born orangutans captured by humans to keep them as pets or sell them to zoos, circuses and laboratories. I have always felt that rescuing orangutans is as important as studying them. By working to return the captives to the forest, I was trying to eliminate the captive orangutan trade in the area and thus protect those still free.”

“Even today, as I write, these creatures, the orangutans, live in the shadows of the canopy deep in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra. They are our kin, our closest relatives. Relatives who never left the garden of Eden and therefore never lost their innocence; relatives who never built complex tools, who never used fire and who never waged war. They are relatives who do not seek masters, who do not need to be redeemed, who approach the ancestors who are no longer on this Earth and who point us in which direction we are moving. My laboratory is the living relative that has existed for millennia”.

“In Indonesia I learned to speak. I learned that whatever happened, if you talked, you delayed the inevitable and possibly disaster. As long as you spoke, you had a chance to convince. In Indonesian society, speech became the primary weapon in defense of the forests and the orangutans”.

“Orangutans, along with other great apes, are our closest living relatives. The great apes remind us, more than any other species, of our connection with nature. Because of our closeness to them, scientists often use them in experiments as surrogates for humans. By contrast, we pay no attention to the “nature experiment” that is taking place right now in the rainforests. As we watch the great apes decline towards extinction, we are witnessing our own future on an increasingly inevitable planet. If we act to save our closest relatives and their tropical habitats, we will be taking the first step towards our own salvation”.

These wise words from the 644-page “Reflection of Eden” invite us to continue to fight like her to defend and protect our evolutionary brothers and sisters from being used as captives for economic gain and human amusement. Biruté’s steps must be the steps that remain as a mark in the defense of our evolutionary brothers and sisters. Biruté deserves to be known, applauded and rewarded for all that she does silently in the middle of the jungle, protecting its inhabitants for the benefit of future human generations.

Let us hear her words to convince, her message to act, her voice to build a better world and her call to defend the great apes and to have their rights to a life of freedom recognized worldwide.


You are a great woman who from the very first moment openly showed your support for the Great Ape Project, to the point that you accepted to be the Honorary President of PGS/GAP Spain, despite being the President of Orangutan Foundation International, directing the Leakey Camp Rescue Centre in Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo and all the commitments you have in different Universities in Canada and the United States. What force drives you to continue with all the responsibilities? How much love can a person like you give off to continue in the fight for the protection of the living beings of the rainforest and especially the orangutans?

A few years ago, a prominent Indonesian man looked me intensely in the eyes and said: “You have passion”. And then he repeated: “Passion. Passion. Passion”.  He understood me. All my life, I have been intensely preoccupied with Nature, and as I grew up, I became fascinated by orangutans. Orangutans became my passion, but this passion grew from the fact that they were forest people. I have dedicated my life to protecting the forests, especially the rainforest of Borneo, where orangutans and other wild animals live, and to understand orangutans better so that I can protect them in the best possible way.

How much love can one person give to protect orangutans and their forests is a question no one can fully answer. I have dedicated most of my adult life to understanding, protecting and saving orangutans from extinction. This is not as easy as it sounds, because it is interconnected with what is happening in nature and the world at large. Without saving the forests, we cannot save the orangutans. Without saving the Earth and Nature, we cannot save the forests. So, the question is: How do we save Nature?

In “Reflections of Eden”, you tell your story and your work in the fight for the conservation of the orangutans in Borneo. When will you write another book to touch our hearts?

Soon I hope to start writing another book about my work to save the orangutans and the forests. In the meantime, my work in Borneo continues with the help of many others.

You are not very well known in Spain. When people talk about great apes, they usually leave you out, when in fact you have never ceased to be in the front line in the preservation of tropical rainforests. I think it’s because your work is little known. Why do you think that is?

Certainly, my work is not as well known around the world as that of my two colleagues Dr Jane Goodall and Dr Dian Fossey, who have become living legends thanks to chimpanzees and mountain gorillas respectively.

For the past 53 years, I have spent much of my time in the forests of Borneo working directly with orangutans and their forest habitat. I do not speak Spanish. Although I have been to Spain on three occasions giving lectures. My trips to Spain were very brief. My book has been translated into Spanish and published in the country. In fact, someone in Mexico gave me a copy as a gift. I am probably not well known in Spain because my work with orangutans has little connection with Spain or Spanish history. I simply spend most of my time in the forests of Borneo compared to the time I spend outside.

I have many friends in Spain and I hope that in the next decade my work will become better known there.

You are one of the three essential women who raises awareness of the problems and the study of great ape populations. Jane Goodall in the study of chimpanzees. Dian Fossey on gorillas and you on orangutans. Three women chosen by Anthropologist Leakey because he knew that women are more patient when it comes to observation. Do you regret it? Would you have preferred to study and protect other great apes?

When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I had the good fortune to meet and talk with Louis Leakey, who became my mentor. Although I am passionate about animals, I was more interested in orangutans and less interested in chimpanzees and gorillas. I spent time in Rwanda and Uganda and observed mountain gorillas. I also had the good fortune to spend time with Jane Goodall in Gombe. I would love to observe African apes in their natural habitat, but I have no regrets about choosing to study orangutans. Orangutans are mostly benevolent creatures, whose social and semi-solitary foraging behaviors help us understand evolution and human prehistory. Through my work with orangutans, we indirectly brought attention to their sister species, the other great ape, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.

All great apes are equally important and should be protected as much as possible. How lonely our planet would be if our closest living relatives were not here to remind us where our human nature comes from and how little different we are from the other apes.

What is the current situation in Indonesia regarding oil palm plantations, deforestation of Indonesian forests and arson?

The current situation in Indonesia has not changed from previous years. Forests and palm oil plantations are established and/or expanded. Illegal logging is taking place. Forests and ashes illustrate the problem of deforestation. Fires burn. Nothing changes. Yet, despite its upward economic trajectory, the Indonesian government has become conscious of the conservation crisis and is taking steps to remedy it.

But the big question is: How much time do we have? Will the world have enough time to save its forests before it is too late?

Regarding the Tapanuli orangutan, who have recently been discovered in northern Sumatra and are very few in number and endangered, what can we do for their protection? What are the imminent dangers of their extinction?

The imminent danger to the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan population is deforestation. The causes of deforestation include illegal logging and forest clearance for the establishment of palm oil plantations. People also kill the orangutans because of agricultural damage. In addition, there is talk of building a dam in the area where the Tapanuli orangutans live.

We can encourage the Indonesian government to create protected areas in the region where the Tapanuli orangutans live. The Tapanuli orangutan population is very small, which means that it is much closer to extinction than other orangutan species and subspecies. To save all wild orangutan populations, including the Tapanuli orangutan, we must avoid the use and consumption of palm oil. Now that Tapanuli orangutans have been identified as distinct species in North Sumatra, they will receive more attention. We are optimistic that this population will not become extinct.

What is the main function of the Camp Leakey?

In 1971 I established Camp Leakey as my main research centre to study the life histories of the wild orangutan population in the area. I also established an orangutan rehabilitation and release program there from 1971 until the end of the 1980s. Ex-captive orangutans born in the wild were rehabilitated and allowed to return to their natural habitat under their own power.

We established a feeding station for the rehabilitated orangutans so that they have the security of a food source in case of need. After a few years, some wild orangutans from the site started to come to the feeding station occasionally.

After many years of the establishment of the research centre in Tanjung Puting National Park, where Camp Leakey is located, it has become an international tourist attraction. Research with wild orangutans began in 1971.  Camp Leakey also attracts many tourists, both international and local, who wish to see orangutans. Tourists have restricted hours and their presence is mainly limited to the feeding station, which is mainly attended by former captives and their descendants, now in their third generation.

Camp Leakey is the longest continuous study site of any wild animal population in the world by a senior researcher, it is also the most popular attraction for international tourists in our province of Central Indonesian Borneo.

You know that in Spain we are pursuing the approval of a Great Apes Law. Right now, the Government must legislate the Law in three months in case there are no new elections. What do you think about this initiative? Do you support it? What would you say to the Spanish Prime Minister regarding this Law?

I am very much in favor of granting adequate basic rights to all great apes and small apes. I hope that Spain will pass the Great Apes Law as soon as possible. What would you say to the President of Spain to achieve the Great Apes Law? I would tell him that Spain will be an example for the rest of the world. Other nations, other countries will look to Spain as a precedent to establish legislation that protects all apes in a pioneering and innovative way. This is the right thing to do. With this law, Spain is moving towards the future. Spain becomes the country to emulate.

The Great Ape Project is present in Spain, and also in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, France, Israel, Mali… in Sorocaba, Brazil, there is a chimpanzee sanctuary whose director is Pedro Ynterian, General Secretary of the Great Ape Project International, where there are more than 50 chimpanzees rescued from zoos and circuses. What do you think about GAP?

The Great Ape Project is an extremely valuable concept. The Great Ape Project presents a vision of humanity that needs to be supported and extended worldwide.

Humanity must recognize that the great apes are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom and deserve the same rights as humans. When we look in the mirror, what we see is essentially little different from a great ape in terms of our cognitive and emotional capacities. There is no reason to deny great apes the rights that we humans have determined to be the basis of human civilization.

Ultimately, those rights should be granted to all animals, and the Great Ape Project is a beacon of hope for better treatment of all animals and a guide to the future.

There are scientists who claim that chimpanzees and bonobos should belong to the same “homo” genus as humans. Do you agree?

There is nothing scientifically wrong with including chimpanzees and bonobos in the same genus “Homo” as humans. Chimpanzees and bonobos are the closest living relatives in the animal kingdom to humans and chimpanzees have been called sister species, sharing approximately 98.4% genetic similarity. Horses, zebras and donkeys are included in the genus Equus, but do not share as much genetic material as humans and chimpanzees. If we can include horses, zebras and donkeys in the same genus, there is no reason why we cannot put humans and chimpanzees in the same genus “Homo”. We could even include gorillas in “Homo” as well. But Asian orangutans are an atypical case, since their ancestors split from African apes and humans long before humans split from African apes.

Another important issue. There are already two rulings in Argentina in which Proyecto Gran Simio were directly involved, one of an orangutan named Sandra and other of a chimpanzee named Cecilia. They had been judicially declared “non-human persons” and have been rescued from the zoos where they were and transferred to sanctuaries. What do you think about it?

Argentina is to be commended for declaring that an orangutan named Sandra and a chimpanzee named Cecilia are now legally “non-human persons”. Apparently, they were moved from the zoos where they were initially kept to sanctuaries, as I understand it. I understand that sanctuaries are a better place for them than zoos. I am delighted with the news that Sandra and Cecilia are non-human persons. All great apes are non-human persons.

Poaching of African great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos) is one of the main consequences of the disappearance of their wild populations. Recent reports brought to light that CITES are falsified by corrupt governments of origin. Babies that are captured are falsified as born in captivity and in this way their provenance is laundered and they can be sold, as this is allowed by CITES regulations. The Great Ape Project has suggested the cancellation of the possibility of selling babies born in captivity. What do you think?

The fact that African authorities falsify the origin of wild great apes as if they were born in captivity in order to be able to sell them legally is scandalous. It is also scandalous that CITES allows such transactions. I fully agree that the sale of African apes born in Africa or any great ape offspring born in a habitat country should be removed from CITES regulations.

The existence of a CITES regulation allowing captive-born baby great apes leaves the door open to the laundering of wild offspring and provides an incentive for the continued killing of wild great apes, especially mothers with babies.

What are the main threats to the three species of orangutans in Indonesia (Sumatran Orangutan, Tapanuli and Bornean Orangutan)?

The main threat to the three orangutan species in Indonesia and Malaysia is deforestation. Orangutan habitats consist of tropical rainforests. The establishment of palm oil and other industrial agricultural plantations, the clearing of forests, logging and the opening up of land for logging. Road construction often involves logging and destroys the forests in which orangutans and other endemic animals live.

Orangutans need forests. They feed mainly on fruit, young leaves and bark. As the largest arboreal species that depends on trees and vines for its subsistence, they cannot survive without forests.

Do you think we can still save wild populations of great apes?

To save wild populations of great apes and small apes, we must recognize the importance of forests and trees. The need to restock and restore forests that have been cleared and/or burned by palm oil plantations, logging, land clearing and strip mining.

Trees are nature’s most effective carbon sequestration technology. To save great ape populations and mitigate global climate change, we must protect existing forests and plant trees in degraded, logged or burned areas. There is no other solution. Without trees and forests, humans and the great apes will not be able to survive in a climate-changed world.

There is hope, but we have to take action. In the past six years, our organization, OFI, has planted more than 900,000 native trees in an effort to help the orangutans and other wild animals of Borneo.

What do you think of the petition we have made to the UN and UNESCO for a Universal Declaration of the basic rights of the great apes and for them to be declared a living heritage of humanity?

The petition to the UN and UNESCO for a Universal Declaration of the Basic Rights of the Great Apes and for them to be declared a Living Heritage of Humanity is very important. I strongly support this petition.

The Great Ape Project is also on the International Committee of the Global Biological Corridor, whose the international headquarters is at the Orangutan Foundation International. What do you think of this Project?

The North American headquarters of the Global Biological Corridor is at the Orangutan Foundation International office in Los Angeles. The Global Biological Corridor is a visionary project that will link the entire land and ocean around the equator as a protected biological zone. Sylvia Earle, a leading marine biologist and ocean conservationist, is the honorary chair of the International Committee of the Global Biological Corridor, which represents the world’s oceans. I am also honorary chair of the International Committee representing the forests around the equator on land. Needless to say, we support this extraordinary project.

What would you say to all those people and young people who don’t know your work and who will get to know you better thanks to this interview?

Orangutans are the only great apes in Asia. They are one of our relatives in the animal kingdom. Orangutans are different from humans in many ways, but in many other ways they are a mirror of ourselves. They are highly intelligent, have emotions similar to ours, have strong mother-child bonds, and can be very gentle and benign with each other. Like all animals, they deserve our love and protection.

Orangutans are only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. The existence of these forests is not only crucial for wild orangutan populations, but also for helping to mitigate climate change which will allow Nature and all animals, including ourselves, to survive and thrive.

I have been studying wild orangutans for almost 53 years. If you knew orangutans as well as I do, you would love them. They are what we were; they haven’t changed much genetically over millions of years. They are closer to our human ancestors than we are.

When you look into the eyes of an orangutan, you see an ancestor of ours. It is unthinkable that this creature, who has survived all these millions of years, could disappear. Please, let us protect orangutans and the rainforests that are their only home. In this way, we also protect ourselves.

To finish, I would like you to tell me something that I have not asked you or that you would like to highlight.

The study of Nature, of all the beings that live in it and of the interconnectedness that characterizes its functioning, brings a lot of wisdom, as well as the interconnectedness that characterizes the functioning of Nature. Our world would be greatly diminished if orangutans and other living things, especially the great and small apes, were to disappear from the Earth. We humans would feel lonely as we would have no living relatives to call our evolutionary brothers and sisters.

Finally, I would like you to leave a message to humanity, to all the young people and people who know you or will know you, to the world politicians in charge to tackle climate crisis and to society in general.

We must remain hopeful in the face of the challenges we face, including climate change. However, it does not matter how much hope we have if we do not take action to solve our problems. Hope is not enough. We need hope and action. I hope that humanity will overcome the challenges of our age and achieve a world in which all people and animals can live in safety and peace with each other. I hope that the world will not destroy itself in a frenzy of violence, hatred and climate change that would lead to the extinction of the civilization we humans have achieved.