Dr. Biruté Galdikas: it would be enormous pity if orangutans and rainforests disappeared

Orangutan and her baby. B. Galdikas Oak Grove at Kaunas Botanical Garden.

Orangutan and her baby. B. Galdikas Oak Grove at Kaunas Botanical Garden.

Some time ago I had a great honour to interview one of the most famous scientists of Lithuanian heritage – a world-renowned anthropologist, orangutan expert and conservationist Dr. Birutė Galdikas. When I first learnt of Dr. Galdikas (who was born to Lithuanian parents who immigrated to Canada), I had no idea we had someone like her. We had world-class writers and economists and physicists but no conservationists. That and of course her work greatly impressed me – she started her research in Borneo in 1971 and has become one of the world’s leading experts on orangutans. Most of her recent visits to Lithuania were widely publicised with lectures and interviews and oak grove plantings. I, unfortunately, during these visits always seemed to be away. This year, however, I not only got to meet Dr. Galdikas but also do an interview – for my job! It didn’t all went as well as I hoped – we had to reschedule a few times as she had caught a cold during her visit to one of Lithuania’s woodlands (see below), and she still wasn’t feeling very well when we finally met, and I was of course ridiculously nervous – but in the end I was really happy.

My article in Lithuanian appeared just a few days after our interview. We actually talked in English, so this is the way it actually went down. The content also differs slightly from the Lithuanian version – I had to omit some questions here that I included there and vice versa (all done with the audience in mind!). We talked about orangutan protection and tropical rainforest conservation (“You can’t separate them. You can’t protect orangutans without protecting the forest”, says Dr. Galdikas); palm oil and the problems associated with it in Indonesia; about conservation and why general public should care about it and what can they do for their part to save orangutans and Borneo’s tropical rain forests. I hope you’ll find it interesting.  I surely did.


How would you describe your normal day?

There is no normal, every day is different, and every day has its own challenges.

What, would you say, are the biggest challenges that Indonesian rainforests currently face?

Palm oil, without a doubt. It’s palm oil that’s driving orangutans to extinction.

Was it also a problem when you first started your work in Borneo?

It wasn’t a problem at all, palm oil plantations barely existed. I didn’t even know what palm oil was. Until the 1980’s when the Indonesian government decided basically to replace many of its forests with palm oil. And this was a decision that they made consciously, but, I don’t think, at the time they were aware of the consequences. They wanted to be a part of the global economy, they wanted to improve the well-being of their own people, their society, and palm oil was seen as something that could help do that.

And the situation today…

It’s terrible. Orangutans are being driven to extinction by palm oil, it’s that simple.

Palm oil is replacing the forest, forests are being converted into palm oil plantations. Timber, and pulp and paper are also playing part but palm oil is by far the biggest driving force for the conversion of the rainforests.

Dr. Birutė Galdikas. Image by Simon Fraser University, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Dr. Birutė Galdikas. Image by Simon Fraser University, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

What about sustainable palm oil? There’s a lot of talk going on about it at the moment.

It’s pretend.

So you don’t think it’s a viable solution?

Not yet. Some of the palm oil, maybe, companies are trying, but for most of them it’s just a cover up. It’s oil laundering.

What about the big campaigns, for example, what Greenpeace is doing trying to bring the big companies on board? It’s not going to work, in your opinion?

I think, what Greenpeace is doing they are really trying to get companies to use sustainable palm oil. Real commitment, not just lip service. I certainly salute and congratulate Greenpeace for all they’re doing. It seems that it’s the only conservation organisation that hasn’t lost its integrity.

What about your organisation, Orangutan Foundation International? What is OFI working on?

We have lots of activities. Several years ago we negotiated with the largest palm oil company in Indonesia – it took us ten months of intense negotiations – to implement a zero tolerance policy for killing, harming or capturing endangered species, including orangutans. And then after that we trained their managers and their associate managers, their top staff, to implement that policy and then subsequently got them to implement another zero tolerance policy on deforestation in high value conservation areas. That was us.

This is for real, they are really making an effort not to kill orangutans and other endangered species. At least the top management is really trying hard to implement these zero tolerance policies, so I think it’s a real step forward.

The problem is: they have over 500,000 hectares of palm oil plantations and that half a million hectares represents a forest that was there and was cut down. So just because we persuaded them to implement these policies, and Greenpeace has done a lot to open people’s eyes, these things, they won’t bring the rainforest back.

For Lithuanians Indonesia and its problems might seem so distant – why people here should care about orangutans and rainforests? 

The reason why people here should care about orangutans, about tropical rainforests, is the same reason why all people should care about it. Lithuania is no different than this or that state. And that reason is that the tropical rainforest are in some ways the lungs of the world. Orangutans are one of our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. We are very very closely related to them and I think it would be an enormous pity, in terms of biodiversity, in terms of our understanding about our own evolutionary history, if orangutans and tropical rainforests disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Just because we persuaded them to implement these policies, and Greenpeace has done a lot to open people’s eyes, these things, they won’t bring the rainforest back.

There’re all kinds of practical reasons to care but, I think, the main one is spiritual. I mean, when you go into a tropical rainforest, you’re going into the most complex ecosystem that has ever evolved on land.

For example, I went on Monday to a Lithuanian forest and it’s a very different kind of ecosystem. Not quite as rich and complicated, but of course rich in some fashion. We are talking about some of the richest ecosystems on the planet when we are talking about tropical rainforests.

What could a regular person do to help solve this problem?

A regular person could do a lot. They could do what I do – I will not buy, eat, consume anything that has palm oil in it. If I see something that has vegetable oil in it, I won’t buy it either. I have to know what oil was used – olive oil, canola, sunflower oil etc. If it says vegetable oil, don’t buy. If it says vegetable oil you know that 99.9 percent of the time it’s palm oil, certainly that’s the case in Indonesia. In Lithuania it’s probably less, but Lithuania is part of the EU, part of the global economy, so I’m sure it’s coming in here as well.

Unfortunately, not many people know that, this is a very new topic here.

Palm oil is a very new topic everywhere, even in the US. People are not as aware as they should be. Palm oil hides very well. It hides so well because it’s cheap, it’s profitable, and everybody loves profit.

More awareness is needed. That supermarkets wouldn’t stock products with palm oil in them. I think, if people refuse to buy it, then it will happen. Awareness [is needed] at the level of supermarket managers, at the level of companies to make a commitment. Problem is that now everyone makes a commitment to sustainable palm oil but in reality the sustainable palm oil doesn’t quite yet exist. It’s all cover up, it’s all oil laundering.

I will not buy, eat, consume anything that has palm oil in it. If I see something that has vegetable oil in it, I won’t buy it either.

You say sustainable and then you can buy it but it’s not sustainable. Nobody can prove it. You have this RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – KS). It’s all a showgame; what they do, is a company says it’s part of the RSPO and it only produces sustainable palm oil. This may be true, but they might be buying 90 percent of its palm oil from somebody else, mix it up with its own and that somebody else’s [oil] is not sustainable. It’s Indonesia and Malaysia, and their attitude about it is if you can get away with it, get away with it. Palm oil producers need to be convinced, some of the bigger companies need to be convinced that consumers do care about this, that consumers don’t want to be using orangutan blood, they don’t want to have orangutan blood on their hands.

Why do they go for the land that’s under rainforests then? Why not plant oil palms someplace else?

It’s just more profitable. They get timber, plus they burn the remaining forest and the ash fertilises the land. And the soil is much more fertile there. At least initially.

Land tenure laws in Indonesia also come into play. If you want a large piece of land, you go to rainforest. Because the land that’s already in use is owned by people and it’s owned in 20 hectare lots. The most you can have is 20 hectares. So, say, you’re a palm oil company and you want to establish a palm oil plantation. If you go into areas where people have lived and abandoned rice fields, for example, you have to buy that grassland for, say, 5 hectares at a time. If you want a concession from a national government it’s much easier to just ask for forest. Nobody owns it. I mean, some people might have claims to it and think they own it, but under Indonesian law forest can be converted into agriculture, you just need to pay off government officials. And you get a concession, a lease for at least 35 years and you don’t have to deal with lots of people.

Palm oil producers need to be convinced…that consumers do care about this, that consumers…don’t want to have orangutan blood on their hands.

OFI is also trying to buy forest, but it’s very difficult. We’re buying it from local people, so it takes a lot of time.

Speaking more generally, why conservation is an important topic, an important endeavour?

Well, why do you think it is?¹

I think, it goes back to what you said earlier about orangutans and what a great loss it would be to us, to the world, and really just because of an intrinsic value of nature.

Yes, intrinsic value of nature. All kinds of studies have shown that patients after surgery get better sooner if they can see trees through their windows compared to people who were kept in rooms without windows. Even if there’s only a painting of nature, they are doing better, although not as well. Our connection with nature is very basic and if you separate us from nature you start getting at the very basic and profound level a lot of anomalies.

Orangutans. Image courtesy of D. Šiaučiulytė, OFI.

Orangutans. Image courtesy of D. Šiaučiulytė, OFI.

People always seek serenity in nature and there’s a reason for it. I know Lithuanians like to go to their country cottages in the weekends and there’s a reason for it. They might not be able to explain it but it’s because it gives them serenity, gives them rest and peace just to be in natural surroundings. The main selling point is that without nature humans are lost. That’s it.

What would you say are the differences between being a scientist and conservationist now, compared to 1970’s when you started working in Borneo?²

There’s no difference. I would hope that most conservationists are scientists to some degree.

Little was known about orangutans back then. Maybe it’s harder to come up with novel questions now?

Not really, there’s all kinds of interesting questions still left. As scientific theory progresses there’s more and more hypotheses that you can examine. What you’re thinking about is probably a very basic knowledge and that’s true, we now know that orangutans are mainly fruit-eaters, that orangutans mainly live on trees. These kinds of things might’ve been easier to document years ago, but interesting questions are still there.

What would you still like to learn? 

There’s lots of things. I would like to know, for instance, how far orangutan males travel, how large are local populations of orangutans, we know that orangutans should be very diverse genetically because they’re very ancient species. We don’t even really know how long orangutans live in the wild on average, we don’t know if generation after generation they eat the same foods. So there’s all kinds of questions that still remain to be answered.

Thank you for the interview!

¹Before the interview we talked about what it is that I do, and what I studied and what my future plans were and I mentioned planning to do a masters in conservation.

²I still have very vivid memories of reading Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man and how she started her career as researcher – by herself, only her mum by her side, in the middle of mostly uncharted African jungle; it read more as Jules Verne’s novel or Indiana Jones’ adventure. Birutė Galdikas, researching orangutans, together with Jane Goodall who was working with chimpanzees, was one of Louis Leakey’s Angels (the third one was Dian Fossey researching gorillas). That connection and the fact that Dr. Birutė was a pioneer working with orangutans, starting her research over 40 years ago, prompted me to ask this question.


One response to “Dr. Biruté Galdikas: it would be enormous pity if orangutans and rainforests disappeared

  1. Pingback: Writing environment: the Basic things | EcoPost·

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