The Orang Utans and Dr. Birute Galdikas

Dr. Birute Galdikas has spent over 3 decades studying and living with the Orang Utans at a reserve in Kalimantan, (Indonesia, Borneo) called Tanjung Puting Reserve. Galdikas first met athroplogist Dr Louis Leakey whilst at UCLA and being familiar with his work and support for Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in in-situ studies of the chimpanzee and gorillas respectively; she voiced her desire to study orangutans. Disinterested at first, Galdikas worked hard and finally convinced Dr.Leakey of her passion. In 1971, Galdikas made her way to Kalimantan, the heart of wild Borneo with the backing of funds, which Dr.Leakey managed to secure for her in-situ work. Over 30years later, Dr. Galdikas is still residing at the Tanjung Putting Reserve - studying the orangutans. Her passion has not waned one bit. In fact through years of studying the orangutans, Dr. Galdikas' task is more pressing then ever. The threat of deforestation is ever increasing and extinction of the species as well as other fauna and flora endemic to the land seems the only conclusion.

Females normally reach puberty at 10years but only have their first offspring at around 13 to 16years in the wild. Males on the other hand, become sexually mature in their teens but as they are often not able to attract females until they develop their cheek pads, successful mating may take years especially if there are dominant cheek padded males within the territory who may inhibit the young male's development.

'The female orangutan's menstrual cycle is 29 to 32 days, with menstruation lasting three to four days. The gestation period is approximately eight months. Usually a single offspring is born, weighing about 3 ½ pounds. The young stay close to their mothers until they reach adolescence. Orangutans have the longest "childhood" of the great apes.' Orangutan Foundation International. Hence each female will bear only 3 to 4 offsprings within their lifespan of 45years.

Orangutans are arboreal which means that they live most of their lives in trees, hardly ever leaving the canopy for the forest floor. Their diet consists mainly of fruit, bark, young leaves, flowers, wild honey, vines and insects. Their much-desired fruit is the wild durian. In some places as with the dyaks as observed in the old days nibbling at chunks of clay, orangutans have been seen eating soil. As large mammals, orangutans spend much of their waking hours feeding on vegetation. The minerals in the soil help neutralise the toxic tannins and acids accumulated in their system.

Orangutans have also been observed to use tools in their daily lives. In the evenings, they make nests out of branches and lay down leaves as bedding. They also have been observed to use large fronds to cover themselves when cold or as shelter from the rain. ' They have also been observed using branches as tools during insect foraging, honey collection, and protection against bees, and to fish for branches or fruit that is out of reach.' Orangutan Foundation International

'Whereas the female orangutan can often remain sexually passive, a male must pursue his reproductive interest, using his pendulous laryngeal sac for the "long call," parts of which sound like a loud roar. The male orangutan's call plays an important role in repelling male rivals and advertising his availability to sexually receptive females, helping him to compete aggressively with other adult males. Thus, mature male orangutans appear to be intolerant of each other, and the meeting of two mature males usually results in either aggression or avoidance' Orangutan Foundation International. This behaviour have been recorded as way back as 1860's when explorers such as William Hornaday discovered in his specimens that some males had lost toe and finger digits, pieces of lip torn off and were scarred obviously caught up in quite a few 'bloody fracas'.

'Not long ago, many people thought culture was unique to the human species, but in recent years, scientists are finding increasing evidence of socially learned traditions elsewhere in the animal kingdom. In January 2003, a group of researchers, including primatologist Dr. Carel van Schaick of Duke University and OFI's president, Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, described two dozen behaviors that are present in some orangutan groups and absent in others. According to the report, these practices are learned from other group members and passed down through the generations. In parts of Borneo, for example, orangutans use handfuls of leaves as napkins, wiping leftover food from their chins. Orangutans in parts of Sumatra, conversely, use leaves as gloves, helping them handle spiny fruits and branches, or as seat cushions in spiny trees.' Extract from Orangutan Foundation International website.

These 'people of the jungle' as the Malays have named them are connected one with the jungle. Without their habitat, they cannot survive. Dr.Birute Galdikas and many more are standing up for their rights, fighting for their survival and with the last estimate at less than 20,000 left and the jungle disappearing at a rate in Borneo and Indonesia, will there be a future for them?

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