The Mother Of All Orangutans

Scientist Studies Then Adopts Borneo Primates

Every evening, Birute Galdikas' children dash through the tropical rain forest of Borneo at the sound of a familiar dinner call. They aren't conventional kids, as they are a few evolutionary steps behind their mother. Galdikas' children are wild orangutans, living in one of their last remaining homes on the planet. And as 48 Hours Correspondent Russ Mitchell reports, this famed primatologist has devoted her life to protecting these animals and their native habitat.

In 1971 Birute Galdikas was just a 25-year-old anthropology student from the University of California at Los Angeles when she and her photographer husband, Rod Brinadmour, left for the Indonesian island of Borneo. Her distinctive research, tied with her husband's adept photography, quickly made the reclusive couple famous. Four years later, with the help of National Geographic, Galdikas brought wild orangutans into America's living rooms.

"The forest was basically untouched," Galdikas says. "The wild orangutans were basically untouched. It really was a garden of Eden," she says. "Some of the orangutans that I met 23 years ago are still here in these forests."

What began as a five-year study has subsequently become an obsession for Galdikas. She and her husband carved out a home deep in the jungle, calling it Camp Leakey, after famed anthropologist Louis Leakey who first sent them to the obscure island.

The Kumai River
48 Hours discovered firsthand the remoteness of Borneo, an island of jungle green straddling the equator. Borneo's boomtown of Pangkalanbuun was the first stop, followed by a 90-minute boat ride down the crocodile-infested Kumai River. Galdikas departs from the remote island for six months each year, however, to teach anthropology students in Canada.

"We're responsible for about 200 orangutans right now," says Galdikas. "In the early days, I raised so many of them as my own foster offspring. Initially, these little infants would cling to me night and day, so I was basically covered in urine and feces."

"I couldn't take them away from me to take a bath," she says. "You know, they shared our bed - our mattress, actually; it wasn't a bed. They took the food right out of my plate."

Galdikas in National Geographic
Before Galdikas' studies, little was known of the wild orangutan. Now her discoveries have made her one of the world's leading primatologists.

"We're dealing with a species that is much older than ourselves," Galdikas continues. "A species that reflects what we were before we became human. I suddenly realized I had reached the point where it was hard for me to see the differences between apes and humans."

The birth of her own son, Binte, may have changed things a bit. His first steps were recorded on home movies. His initial playmates were wild and, in some ways, his best friends, Galdikas says.

Click here if you want to buy Gladikas'"Orangutan Odyssey."

These best friends became one of National Geographic's most popular covers: Binte and an orangutan named Princess.

Today Galdikas worries that Borneo's disappearing rain forest will lead to the primates' demise. "The habitat has been decimated. And orangutans really are going extinct."

Galdikas makes no secret of her disdain for the loggers, developers and poachers that she regards as enemies of the orangutan population. She showed 48 Hours an undercover video taken at a wildlife marketplace in Taiwan as an orangutan orphan, snatched from the forest in Borneo, fetched up to $5,000. Galdikas has pressured the Indonesian government to pass strict laws to crack down on poachers and angered those who see her as a meddling foreigner.

She explains that the only way for a poacher to get a small orangutan is to "kill the mother and brutally strip the infant from her dead body."

Under Galdikas' care
Galdikas' friends in the scientific community worry that her outspokenness may cause her to suffer the same fate as her old friend, anthropologist Dian Fossey, said to have been murdered in Rwanda by poachers. But Galdikas insists the risks are worth it.

She has let nothing stand in the way of protecting her orangutan family, not even her real family. Her husband grew tired of sharing his life with the orangutans. He subsequently left Galdikas and the jungle, which he complained had become a "green jail." The divorce forced her to make a choice: She could either stay in the jungle with Princess, or leave and raise Binte.

She stayed with the orangutans, and her son left with his father.

Binte, now a 23-year-old musician living in Vancouver, does not hold a grudge. He sees his mother while she's teaching in Canada and helps her with her fund raising.

"She's out here doing something," says Binte. "Most people can't say that about their parents," he notes. "She knows that nobody else is going to do it, so she's going to do it."

Eventually Galdikas married a local tribesman, but her relationship with her son remained a sore spot. "I wish I could have spent more time with Binte. That's the only regret I have," she says remorsefully. "What keeps me here is my concern that a little relic of Eden be safeguarded forever."

She hopes her new book, titled Orangutan Odyssey, will bring attention to her cause: safeguarding Borneo.