Unsung Heros: Women in Conservation – Dr. Birute Galdikas (born May 10, 1946)

Author’s Note: In honor of Stefanie Powers and Women’s History Month, I am proud to share biographies of the unknown (at least to me) woman who have worked and are working to heal the Earth and make it a better place for us all.

Uknown photographer, National Geographic

My source for this article can be found here.

Dr. Galdikas’ story reminds me of the real-life version of Seinfeld’s “Pavarotti, Domingo and the other guy” sketch because she is the primatologist whose biography is forgotten among the global name recognition of her peers, Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. She met Dr. Louis Leakey in 1969 while a graduate student at UCLA, and she told him she wanted to study orangutans. He wasn’t impressed at first, but eventually (after three years) decided to give her the same chance he had given Fossey and Goodall, and funded her research.

In 1971, at the age of 25, Dr. Galdikas and her husband moved to Borneo so that she could begin her research at the Tanjung Puting Reserve. Most of her peers didn’t believe she would succeed simply because the orangutan is notoriously elusive; they live deep in swamps in Indonesia and scientists didn’t think she’d ever even see one, much less get close enough to do a comprehensive study on par with what Fossey and Goodall had done with gorillas and chimpanzees. Dr. Galdikas proved them wrong. By 1975, she had amassed enough research that she wrote the definitive article for National Geographic which introduced the world to these gentle primates. By 1986, there was enough global interest in saving orangutans and their habitat that she created the Orangutan Foundation International, and nearly 40 years later, the organization is still working tirelessly to protect them.

She was named senior advisor to the Indonesian Forestry Ministry and in June 1997, she won the prestigious Kalpataru Award for excellence in environmental stewardship. To date, she is the only non-Indonesian and one of only a very few women who have received this recognition. She lives in Borneo and still works on behalf of the orangutan, and thus holds the record for conducting the longest continuing study of any mammal in the world.

She’s definitely NOT “the other guy” wouldn’t you say?

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