Faculty and Staff

Global authority on orangutans marks 50 years in the field, award for global contributions

March 10, 2021
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By Marianne Meadahl

SFU professor Birute Mary Galdikas, the world’s foremost authority on orangutans, is being recognized with SFU’s Chris Dagg Award for Impact in International Sustainable Development. The famed anthropologist is also marking 50 years in the field—a life’s work of documenting orangutan behaviour, mobilizing rehabilitation efforts, and advocating for their ancient rainforest habitat in collaboration with the area’s Indigenous communities.

The award honors SFU faculty or staff members who have made a significant contribution to international sustainable development. It recognizes the legacy of the late Chris Dagg, who was central to SFU’s international engagement efforts for more than 30 years.

This year’s award fittingly intersects with Dagg’s extensive partnership work to develop strong science faculties with five Indonesian universities through the Eastern Indonesian Universities Development Project (EIUDP).

Galdikas’ research is one of the world’s longest field studies ever to be carried out by one principal investigator. SFU colleague and Indigenous Studies professor Annie Ross says Galdikas has had an enormous impact “through her intelligent, multi-decades long, community-based, extraordinary innovation and leadership; an ability to work with diverse peoples from many walks of life; and her calm, unflappable self in the face of adversity.

“She has given everything a human has to offer in our lifetime, not for herself, but for the advancement of primatology and the health and welfare of all living beings.”

Currently in Vancouver, Galdikas has been away from Indonesia—and her husband, Bohap bin Jalan—since January 2020, when she returned to SFU to teach and could not return due to pandemic travel restrictions. With plans to return as soon as they lift, she continues to teach and connects with her Indonesian team almost daily.

“It’s difficult to be away for so long but that’s the reality of the world we’re now living in,” says Galdikas, who is no stranger to challenges. She notes that half a century on, orangutan research and rehabilitation efforts remain critical amid continuing threats, such as habitat loss and climate change.

“I hope the pandemic will help to focus people’s minds on the need to take care of nature. We may survive the pandemic, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the planet may one day not be habitable.”

Her research has led to new sustainable practices to help secure orangutan habitat, organizations to support their environment, and knowledge to inform global sustainability needs.

Galdikas, who graced the cover of National Geographic in 1975, began her Indonesian field research based at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Putting National Park in Central Indonesian Borneo.

She created the first orangutan rehabilitation and release program in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), which is still active today. She built the locally-run program from a desire to bring together science, conservation and sustainable community development.

Galdikas is also one of three leading women primate researchers, called the “Trimates,” whom famed anthropologist Louis Leakey mentored, alongside Dian Fossey (gorillas) and Jane Goodall (chimpanzees). The trio was featured last year in a CBC’s “Nature of Things” documentary, “She Walks with Apes.” A documentary film on her work, “Born to be Wild”, was released in 2011.

Galdikas earned a PhD from the University of California Los Angeles and in 1989 joined SFU as a full professor in the Department of Archaeology, (and for many years, an adjunct professor in what is now the Department of Indigenous Studies). She has taught and lectured extensively on orangutans, their tropical rainforest habitat and conservation issues and has supervised numerous students in the wild.

In 1986, Galdikas and her colleagues established the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), based in Los Angeles, to support the conservation of wild orangutans and their rainforest habitats around the world. Galdikas and colleagues later established OFICanada, based in Vancouver, as well as encouraged Australians to establish OFIAustralia

In Indonesia, OFI employs more than 250 people from the local area, many of whom are Indigenous Dayak people of Borneo, to manage the rehabilitation program, conduct observations on wild orangutans, and carry out patrols in the forest.

OFI staff also recently led a large-scale reforestation effort to offset the devastation of annual forest fires, including those in 2015—planting more than 370,000 trees.

Reniastoetie Djojoasmoro, an OFI manager based in Jakarta, says: “Galdikas inspires everyone, including me, to preserve forests for the quality of human, and orangutan, life in the future.”

Ruth Linsky, who completed her undergraduate degree at SFU, has spent much time in the field with Galdikas. Now working on her PhD at SFU, the OFI Canada board member and SFU Orangutan Awareness Club organizer is also anxious to return to the rainforest.

“Dr. Galdikas’ lifetime of dedication has created a whole community and now generational movement in Indonesia working to save orangutans and the rainforest. Having her at SFU has inspired so many of us students to be the best scientists and humans we can for orangutans and our planet.”

With ongoing forest fire threats, poaching and land degradation by the palm oil industry, the need to preserve orangutan habitat remains dire, says Galdikas. She has worked with government, informed policy, protested development, and even led police patrols.

“I became a researcher to study orangutans, and I soon learned you can’t ignore the habitat that sustains them,” she says. “In order to keep the species, or any species, for that matter, from irreparable harm, we need to understand that connection to nature. I’ve made it my life’s work, and will continue as long as I can.”

For more information on the Chris Dagg Award for Impact in International Sustainable Development, please visit http://www.sfu.ca/international/index/Chris_Dagg_Award.html.