Dr Biruté Mary Galdikas: 50 years in the Field of Orangutan Research and Conservation
In August 2021, Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) partner with Orangutan Alliance to celebrate 50 years since OFI President and Founder Dr. Mary Galdikas made camp in the beautiful jungles of Borneo to begin her pioneering study of orangutans. Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, Blane and Amy share a 1 hour conversation exploring all aspects of this journey so far – beginning with the inspiration for studying orangutans, the changes she has seen in Borneo in the last 50 years, as well as exploring her hope for the future of orangutans and sharing actions we can take to help achieve that vision.
50 years ago, Indonesia was totally different from what it is today. Up until 1966 Indonesia had made the conscious decision to keep their distance from the world, by not being a part of the global economy and this despite causing certain difficulties and restrictions for the locals and foreigners regarding travel and other issues, had a positive impact on the environment.
Considering the amount of time that species such as the Orangutan have been around for, 50 years is not a lot. Biruté mentions that it is indeed a shame to witness the tremendous loss of habitat and species due to the actions of humans.
Speaking to Dr Biruté on what she has accomplished during these years, she mentions that along her journey of saving forests and Orangutans, they have played a huge role in helping the Indonesian public realize the importance of Orangutans and forests and the role they play in the environment.
In her early days as a conservationist, Dr Biruté says she prioritized researching wild Orangutans and their population as to understand them better, and as time went by, her priorities shifted to persuading the government to set up more protected areas so that Orangutans could have safer living conditions.
According to Dr Biruté, in order to enable more sustainable conservation, society, wherever it may be, needs to shift their priorities. The so-called “sustainable palm oil” industry that doesn’t exist and which also destroys forests continues. We can’t keep on going the way that we’re going, and in order for that to change, people need to become less materialistic and more spiritual, because as it is seen nowadays it has become a competition of accumulating materialistic things, and the connection with nature and the environment has been forgotten.
We need to redefine what we consider as valuable. It shouldn’t be about money or materialistic items. Happiness, healthy environmental conditions, among others should also be measured as valuable.
Another important fact that is linked to the environment is that in today’s world there is a lot of violence going around. Dr Biruté says that once we change our values we can decrease the violence, because violence is all about resources and power.
And once we realize that environmental health and other non-materialistic things are of more value, there will be no reason to fight.
Climate change needs to be addressed as it is a very important part of this all.
The home of the Orangutans is on the equator and with global warming being a huge problem, not only does it affect the home of the Orangutans which are already critically endangered, it affects everyone globally.
Dr Biruté also shares her experience of traveling to the Arctic and she mentions that Polar bears, despite living in totally different climates and being different mammals, are caught in the same trap as Orangutans are. The issues all stem from climate change. It tells us that if we don’t make a change to help polar bears, we won’t make a change to help Orangutans and vice versa. Therefore it is up to us to make climate change a more known issue and bring the reality forward. Until this change is made and society as a whole doesn’t start following and listening to those who care about the environment, nothing will change.
Dr Biruté has had many interactions with Orangutans and she relates how these interactions make her mission more important. It makes it more significant because you realize that you’re not working or doing things for yourself, but to continue, protect and preserve nature. Because once nature is lost, we as humans will lose ourselves too, as humans cannot survive without nature.
The Orangutan is also the unknown Ape, and if it were to be asked to people in general about what an Orangutan is, Dr Biruté says that less than 20% of people would be able to give you an answer. And that is why another important part of her mission is to make it more known to everyone around the world that these marvelous apes exist and spread the knowledge on them to as many people as possible. Because if people don’t know about them, then they can’t worry about them either.
When asked on what we could do or change within our strategy at helping and conserving endangered species, Dr Biruté says that from her experience in this field she notices that human ego often gets in the way of the main mission which is to protect nature. Many times, because of a conflict in a certain country, organisations that are striving for the same purpose don’t communicate, and if human ego was less involved in this, we could all come together as one, for the same purpose and then be more efficient in conserving nature. As Dr Biruté says, “It doesn’t matter what religion you follow, as long as you have compassion.”
As we all know, palm oil is detrimental to the environment and more forests are being stripped down to create room for palm oil plantations. One of the biggest steps in the right direction is to stop using palm oil or to use as little of it as possible. Because palm oil is so commonly used, the only way to make a difference is if we as consumers make our voices and opinions known, and once there is eventually enough consumer pressure, then the large palm oil producers will be forced to change to sustainable crops.
What can you do to help the environment as an individual according to Biruté?
- Plant trees because with every tree you plant, you are making a huge difference and sometimes we all forget how incredible trees are and what they do for our ecosystem.
- Contribute as much as you can and support those organizations who are striving at their mission to protecting the environment.
- Be more outspoken with whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, however it should not be only about delineating the problem and saying how terrible the situation is but to have optimism and find solutions or ways that anyone can help with whatever is going on. And by doing this, people will be more encouraged to get involved because not only are you making them understand the severity of the situation but you’re also providing them with solutions to it.
Dr Biruté stresses the importance of always moving forward no matter how long it may take, or how difficult it may seem. Because along the way you inspire many people to do the same and before you know it, there’s a whole movement behind you. Keep pushing and stressing the importance of Orangutans and protecting the forests.
Written by Aqeelah Stiles
All quotes and information referenced from Eco Impacters podcast August 2021
Listen now via Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1X9Jeu3OxSPb3pfYVaM7ID and subscribe to the Eco Impacters