Biruté Marija Filomena Galdikas, OC, primatologist, conservationist, educator (born 10 May 1948 in Wiesbaden, Germany). Galdikas is the world’s leading authority on orangutans. She has studied them in Indonesian Borneo since 1971. She is also involved in conservation and rehabilitation efforts for orangutans. Galdikas forms part of a trio of primatologists nicknamed the “Trimates,” along with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Galdikas spends part of the year in Indonesia and teaches half time at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
Early Life and Education
Biruté Mary Galdikas is the oldest of four children. Though she was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, Galdikas’ parents, Anatanas and Filomena, are Lithuanian. At the time of her birth, Galdikas’ parents were refugees on their way to Canada. Her family moved to Toronto when she was two and later to northern Ontario. From an early age, Galdikas had an interest in animals and exploration.
She began her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, before moving to the United States with her family. She continued her studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1966, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and zoology and in 1969 with a Master of Arts in anthropology.
After a lecture at UCLA, Galdikas approached leading anthropologist Louis Leakey about studying orangutans. Leakey had mentored Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in their field research on chimpanzees and gorillas, respectively. While Leakey secured funding for her research, Galdikas finished her PhD course work. Of her first meeting with Leakey, Galdikas remembers, “As soon as I heard him talk about primates and great ape studies, and sending Jane and Dian into the field, I knew this was it.”
Observation of Orangutans in Indonesian Borneo
In 1971, Biruté Mary Galdikas and her then-husband, Rod Brindamour, travelled to Tanjung Puting Reserve. The reserve is on the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. They carried very few supplies and travelled into an area with no roads, electricity, or telephones. They faced difficult living conditions, including bugs, parasites, wild animals, toxic plants, viruses, high humidity, and limited food.
Did you know?
Orangutans are found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, in Asia. Orangutans are a critically endangered species, with an estimated population of 119,346. In Malay, “orangutan” means “person of the forest.”
Many people doubted that Galdikas would be able to study orangutans, as they are elusive animals. Despite their slow-paced and solitary nature, Galdikas eventually gained the trust of the animals after years observing them. She studied their diets, mating habits, social interactions and birth cycles. Before Galdikas’ work very little was known about orangutans. Her research was a major addition to the field.
In 1978, Biruté Mary Galdikas earned her PhD in biological anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Although much of her research was published in her thesis, she did not publish frequently. This drew criticism from some who felt she was withholding significant research material. Galdikas argues that her work to protect orangutans and conserve their habitat is more important than studying them. Soon after arriving in Indonesia, she established care centres and rehabilitation and release programs for ex-captive orangutans. She co-founded Orangutan Foundation International in 1986 and Orangutan Foundation Canada in 2011. Both of these organizations work to protect wild orangutans.
In Indonesia, she has supervised field research students, is professor extraordinaire at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta, and helped establish Tanjung Puting as a National Park. She served as senior advisor to Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry from 1996 to 1998. In 1997, she received the Kalpataru award (Hero of the Earth), the highest honor given by Indonesia for environmental leadership.
While studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, Biruté Mary Galdikas met her first husband, Canadian Rod Brindamour. Brindamour joined her in Indonesia. There, their son Binti was born. In 1979, they divorced and Brindamour returned to Canada with their son, whom Galdikas visited while teaching in British Columbia. In 1981, Galdikas married Pak Bohap, a Dayak tribesman in Indonesia. The couple have two children, Frederick and Filomena Jane. Galdikas published her memoirs, Reflections of Eden, in 1995.
- Satya Lencana Pembangunan Medal, Indonesia
- Humanitarian Award, PETA (1990)
- Global 500 Award, United Nations (1993)
- Officer, Order of Canada (1995)
- Kalpataru (Hero for the Earth) Award, Indonesia (1997)
- Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (1997)
- Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
- Cross of the Lithuanian State of Order of Merit, Lithuania (2010)
- Pride of Lithuania Award, Lithuania (2011)
- Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)