World-renowned and foremost orang utan expert, Dr. Birute Galdikas was featured again in the Daily Express, Sunday 26th July 2009.
First to confirm declining Orang utan birth rate
PRIMATOLOGIST Dr Birute Mary Galdikas 63 is the world’s foremost authority on orangutans, having spent 40 years living among these creatures in the forests of Indonesian Kalimantan. Thanks to her research, man now has a better understanding of his closest cousin which may even have pleased Charles Darwin, who famously pondered on the origin of the species.
She is one of three western women to dedicate their lives to studying apes, the others being Jane Goodall (chimpanzees) and late Dianne Fossey (gorillas) who was murdered by poachers. While both Jane and Diane worked in Africa, Galdikas turned to Borneo – and all looked upon Dr Louis Leakey as mentor.
Galdikas is Founder-President of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) dedicated to the conservation of wild orang utans, and their rainforest habitat. Her research camp, dubbed “Camp Leakey”, which she established in Tanjung Puting National Park (Kalimantan Tengah) 38 years ago is now a world centre for orang utan studies and tourist destination.
Now an Indonesian citizen, the Lithuanian-born Dr Galdikas’ efforts in lobbying for the preservation of the tropical rainforests, in Kalimantan Tengah, resulted in saving close to two million hectares of forests for the orang utans.
She reckoned, her dedication to the orang utan cause also cost her first marriage with both her first husband and some who grew up with orang utans deciding to return to western civilization. She decided to stay on and has since remarried a rice farmer who is also a Tribal President. She has a son and daughter from him.
Dubbed by some as Mother Theresa of the Orang Utan, she recently visited Sabah where she talked to Daily Express Special Writer Mary Chin and Chief Editor James Sarda about how she ended up becoming best friend, spokesperson and saviour of these creatures.
DEALING with apes, particularly studying their behaviour the past 40 years in the forests of Kalimantan, afforded an opportunity to Dr Birute Galdikas to confront one of man’s most pressing questions – did we evolve from apes as Charles Darwin theorised more than a century ago?
She recalls posing a question as an 11-year-old to a Roman Catholic priest in her class about evolution.
“Instead, the priest asked me a question. He said, ‘if human beings descended from monkeys (as some believe), then why don’t we see monkeys evolving into human beings right in front of our very eyes today?” ‘
When she went to study orang utans and learned about evolution and biology; that was one of the questions that was in the back of her mind.
“I mean, other people would have answered that much better than I ever could. But that was the question that I asked and continued to ask, and that was what the Roman Catholic priest asked me.
“I was like an 11-year-old girl and I couldn’t answer him. I knew nothing, but it was a legitimate question.”
When pressed whether she is a believer in Darwinism or the story of Genesis as found in the Holy Bible, DrGaldikas has this to say.
“It’s not a question of whether you believe in it or not. It’s not a belief. It’s a fact. It’s a very fine fact that evolution has taken place on this planet.”
Asked if the evolution was coming down from apes to man, she suggested there must have been a proverbial missing link somewhere when this transformation happened but that the information we need is not available.
“No, I think it’s coming down from creatures who were our ancestors and also the ancestors of humans. So we share ancestors with the great apes but the creatures that were our ancestors, say 10 million years ago, weren’t like the apes we find now and weren’t like the people we find now.
“There was something a little bit different. But if we encounter them on the streets, we probably would say that they were apes. So, yes, we share a common ancestor with the great apes,” she theorised.
“We can’t avoid saying so because if we examine our DNA, we share the same genetic sequences with chimpanzees.
“Ninetynine per cent of our genetic sequences are identical with those of chimpanzees. So the reality of evolution cannot be denied. The reality of our ancestry cannot be denied, but has nothing to do with religious belief.”
According to her, even Darwin himself said something to the effect that maybe God started the whole process off “but that process of evolution is a very viable one.
“It did happen and continues to happen but not in the macro ways that people suspected.”
Dr Galdikas has in the course of her 40 years in the Indonesian jungle, also made some significant findings about orang utan behaviour that has contributed to the body of knowledge about these primates.
Firstly, the extreme birth interval of orang utan females.
“Before my work, people thought that orang utan females gave birth once every three or four years. After I had worked in Kalimantan for maybe 20 years, I was able to document the fact that orang utans have the longest birth interval of any wild mammal in the world.
“In Kalimantan a female orang utan gives birth once every eight years. When I first published this, people were surprised, saying then they are very vulnerable to extinction. Well, that’s true.”
Expanding on her findings, scientists who worked in northern Sumatra several years later found their combined data showed that over there the orang utans gave birth on average once every 10 years.
“I was the first person that brought this to world attention.
Dr Galdikas also found that wild orang utans gave birth for the first time once they are 16 years of age.
“I have also done work on reproductive behaviour of the males and the fact that you have two classes of males. You have males who are basically fully adult and. capable of mating but they like to have cheek pads.
And we have the cheek-padded branch males who tend to be more dominant.”
According to her, it has been very interesting to see what are the conditions under which a sub-adult male basically desires to be a branch male or cheek-padded male.
“This is because in the lifetime of an orang utan it seems to depend on the presence of other males in the vicinity. So if you have a lot of branch males in the vicinity, then the sub-adult male isn’t going to become a branch male.
“He is going to wait because the competition is too extreme. Now if you have just sub-adult males in the vicinity and not branch males, then sub-adult males are going to become branch or cheek-padded males very early,” she pointed out.
She said the different kind of reproductive tactics by these two classes of males not only has consequences for individual orang utan life histories but it also has consequences for orang utan evolution.
“So, if as is happening now, branch males or cheek-padded males are being shut out because they are not visible, then that is altering the selection process for orang utan males in general,” she said, adding she has done a lot of work on the reproduction of the males.
Generally, male orang utans are not successful in attracting sexually receptive females until they have developed large cheek pads. Female orang utans find these cheek pads attractive.
Extracted from the Daily Express Sabah, Sunday 26thJuly 2009 Page 7.