In July this year, I had the pleasure of seeing orang-utans wild in the jungle of Borneo whipping their way through the treetops. An awesome sight.
I still hope that I might catch sight of the other two of the triumvirate of endangered hominids, the gorilla and the chimpanzee, in Africa before too long. Orang-utans are endangered at 105,000 left in the world, mountain gorillas are critically endangered at 1000, and chimpanzees are endangered with upwards of 200,000 left.
These three species have become familiar to us through the work of three dedicated scientists who have studied them in their natural environments for decades: Jane Goodall and the chimps; Dian Fossey and the gorillas in the mist; and Birute Galdikas and the orang-utans of Borneo.
Biruté Galdikas is renowned for her work in studying orang-utans in the field since 1971. She has researched them longer than any other person and has worked ceaselessly to save orang-utans and forests.
Galdikas was the first to document the long orang-utan birth interval, which averaged 7.7 years, at Tanjung Puting. She recorded over 400 types of food consumed by orang-utans, providing unprecedented detail about orang-utan ecology. She also helped reveal the nature of orang-utan social organisation and mating systems. She observed flanged adult males in combat, consortships, and even wild orang-utans giving birth. It was the most complete record of wild orang-utan behaviour ever recorded.
In June 1997, she won the Kalpataru award, the highest honour given by the Republic of Indonesia, for outstanding environmental leadership. When our student group were in Borneo in July, we visited the research camp where Dr Galdikas has spent the past 47 years observing the orang-utan. Unfortunately, we did not meet her as she and her team were out in the forest carrying on with their research. However, that will all change when I take a second group of students over in December this year. We have been able to make contact with Dr Galdikas recently and she has invited our group of undergraduate biologists to meet her and her team on site in the Borneo habitat. Such an honour and learning experience.