Who Is Biruté Galdikas?

This scientist is one of the most prominent, along with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, in terms of research and the fight to protect primates. Her specialty is the reintegration of little orangutan orphans.
Who Is Biruté Galdikas?
Eugenio Fernández Suárez

Written and verified by the vet Eugenio Fernández Suárez.

Last update: 18 November, 2023

Many conservationists have decided to go to distant lands to protect wild species and dedicate their entire lives to the study of a particular species. An example of this is Biruté Galdikas.

Biruté Galdikas: first steps

Biruté Galdikas was born in 1946 in Germany, but she grew up in Canada where her interest in animals got more and more intense. It was in March 1969 that the young Biruté heard a lecture from the anthropologist Louis Leakey at the University of California on the dangers that great apes face, and the importance of studying them in connection to the evolutionary theory.

Leakey had already been the mentor and driving force behind Jane Goodall‘s research projects with chimpanzees in Gombe, and Dian Fossey’s projects with gorillas in Virunga. So, Biruté Galdikas convinced Louis to do the same with her and orangutans.

Louis Leakey allowed these three women to revolutionize our knowledge of the animal world. However, Leakey was a very demanding man. He often asked candidates to have an appendectomy, something Biruté did without hesitation.

Biruté Galdikas, another of Leakey’s angels

Thus, Biruté Galdikas would become, along with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, one of the so-called “Leakey’s angels”, three scientists whose careers were boosted by the anthropologist, to the point that all three would overshadow his career by discovering everything about the behavior of three of the great apes.

An ape on a tree.

After obtaining funding from National Geographic, Biruté Galdikas settled in Borneo, where only Alfred Wallace had met orangutans in the mid-19th century.

This species is much more elusive than other primates, as they’re quite solitary in the wild. Therefore, even though she started years after Fossey and Goodall, she began in the same way they did – with hardly any information about the animals she would become the world’s foremost expert on.

Orangutan orphans, the great work of Biruté Galdikas

In 1971, Biruté Galdikas founded the Louis Leakey Research Center in southern Borneo, where she began to study orangutans. This woman has become an expert in the reintegration of primates in their habitat, as hundreds of orangutan orphans appear every year.

One of the main reasons why she has had to care for so many orphans is the palm oil conflict. It’s a product found in dozens of industrial bakery products, as well as ultra-processed and pre-prepared foods.

Orangutans are one of the animals with the longest childhoods.  That meant that Biruté Galdikas and her team had to raise them for several years. Then, she would integrate them with those living in the jungle.

A monkey.

The ghosts of the forest

Even though Biruté Galdikas had a lot of experience with orphans, wild orangutans were very elusive. For years she had very few encounters. Usually, when she encountered one, they quickly disappeared into the thicket of Borneo’s high forests.

Despite this, Biruté’s work has allowed us to learn more about the unknown life of this primate. We know now that orangutans consume more than 300 food sources, mainly plants, fungi, and the occasional insect.

Like other great apes, orangutans are very intelligent: they’re an example of how animals use tools and have a culture. Unfortunately, they’re also highly endangered, and Biruté and her team continue to protect these animals from extinction. However, as stated in many interviews, she knows that her life is in danger too, because of her fight against poaching.

Finally, the deforestation of Borneo’s jungles is the main cause behind these animals’ imminent danger of extinction. Not consuming palm oil is a good way to protect orangutans from extinction and help the conservation of this species.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.