What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Dr. Birute Galdikas, 65, is a primate scientist and professor who has specialized in orangutans in Indonesia for 40 years. Galdikas, who worked closely with famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, founded Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park on the island of Borneo to study and conserve orangutans for Orangutan Foundation International, which she created. Galdikas was raised in Canada.
Early next year, she will lead a 10-day "Indonesian Interlude" cruise expedition to two of her research stations in Borneo (www.orangutan.travel or www.frontiersej.com).
Q: Why should orangutans be of importance to the average non-scientist?
A: They are great apes, one of our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. They share 97 percent of their genetic material with us; they are only 3 percent from being human. This kinship makes them important and among most intelligent land animals on this planet. They live a lifestyle like our ancestors, in tropical rainforests. I call them "gardeners in the Garden of Eden" because they're seed dispersers who maintain the diversity of the rainforest.
Also unusual is that they have bright orange hair, unlike the great apes in Africa, which have black hair.
Q: What are they like?
A: Wild orangutans are very shy, wary. Once used to humans, they are very curious. They are benign, quite benevolent and quite passive. They have pleasant personalities. Unlike chimpanzees, they're not aggressive or territorial. Orangutans are also semi- or fully solitary in the wild. They live on their own.
Q: If they're independent, how closely can you interact with them?
A: It depends on the orangutan. At my camp, an orangutan will come up to someone, grab their hands and stare into their eyes. This has happened!
Q: Is that typical?
A: Only in Camp Leakey. This is because I've been there 40 years, basically continuously.
Q: So they know you. ...
A: They know me and the situation — that the people who pass through are guests. They're very laid-back about it.
Q: How many people are at Camp Leakey?
A: Without visitors, about 20 Dayaks or Malays — locals. We have about 2,500 visitors a year now to see the orangutans. Camp Leakey is in southern Borneo. You can't get there entirely by road. It's half an hour by land vehicle, then another 1 1/2 hours by speedboat after you leave the airport.
Q: What do orangutans do all day at your camp?
A: At Camp Leakey, the orangutans are free to come and go. It's the same at the (nearby) Orangutan Care Center and Quarantinere Center, though they tend to stay with caregivers. We have 130 local people who work with us. We have 330 orangutans there, and they go into sleeping cages at night. They kind of know routine.
Q: What do wild ones eat?
A: Fruit. Hundreds of types are available in the forest. At the care center, we feed them bananas, oranges. pineapples. durians, mangos and so on. If we don't find fruit in the marketplaces , we give them vegetables.
Q: Ones you've encountered in zoos — do you think they wish they were free?
A: Of course. Wouldn't you, if you were stuck in a cage every day, year in and year out? In the wild, they stay away from you and are 100 feet in the air, hiding in the trees. Camp Leakey is one of the few places where free-range orangutans are accessible.
Q: One 2012 expedition starts at $7,335, excluding airfare to the East Indies. What's the takeaway for people who go?
A: It changes your life. You're in the presence of a creature so much like us ... It's truly humbling. They're such intelligent creatures — almost as smart, but not quite — as us. They understand so much. People can't help but be moved.
It's awesome to sit next to a creature that could rip you apart with bare hands — yet doesn't do it. A male orangutan that can weigh 300 pounds in the wild can walk over and instead touch you.