They are known as “the old men in the jungle’’. And for 43 years, Dr Birute Galdikas has been looking after 300 orphan orangutans in the remote Tanjong Puting Reserve in Indonesian Borneo.
Now the work of Dr G, as she is fondly known, is the latest experience being used to tempt Asians to try expedition and adventure cruising.
One of the cruise industry’s biggest growth area, “soft adventure” – journeys to fascinating areas of the globe aboard luxury vessels – is showing strong returns.
Dr G nurses the young orangutans until they are ready to be released back to the wild.
Many of the orphaned orangutans’ mothers were killed by deforestation. Dr G bottle feeds them with special formula milk, bathes them and cuddles them to sleep at Camp Leakey.
Cruisers will have the choice of three experiences this year on board Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic Orion to see the orangutans up close, with Dr G on hand to explain her lifelong work.
Q: You have been working for 43 years to save the orangutan from extinction. Do you believe the world has now woken up to their fate?
The world has certainly awakened to the possible coming extinction of orangutan populations in the wild over the last few years but is only taking “baby steps” to deal with the issue. More vigorous action is still needed to save wild orangutan populations from the fate that seems to be overwhelming them.
Q: When you are discussing this with cruise passengers, do you find they empathise with the plight of animals easily?
Cruise passengers seem to empathise greatly with the orangutans, especially when they visit the free-ranging ones at Camp Leakey and then the orangutan orphans at the Care Center. The orphans seem to have a huge impact! I have literally seen passengers cry with joy and gratitude when they were with the young orphan orangutans at the Care Center! Unfortunately, while the impact is huge when the passengers are still on the ship, after they return home and become involved with their normal daily lives, orangutans slip down in their order of priorities. But I believe some impact remains as passengers stay in contact through the adoptions provided by National Geographic Orion from Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). Some actually return. One couple has been back three times.
Q: Do you think the kind of immersion experience cruise passengers get helps wildlife conservation? And if so, how?
Orangutans are their own best ambassadors! The immersion experience of passengers changes them. It makes them happier to be so close to nature and to wildlife. In the case of orangutans, to look into the eyes of one of our closest relatives on the planet and have those eyes gaze back at you, unblinking and serene, as though you were looking into a mirror of your own soul has a profound effect on passengers! It changes their attitudes, at least while they are on the ship. But I also believe that they take much of that attitude change home and it affects how they view the world afterwards.
Q: We deal with a large Asian audience, do they react differently to other groups you deal with?
Asians already have their own unique relationship to nature which encompasses a spiritual element that may be very strong. Also, Asians have many complex cultures that were established thousands of years ago (think Chinese or East Indian) so their response depends on their own culture. They do not have the older European mentality which is to conquer nature, explore it, and take as many natural resources as possible. Asians locate the most precious things in nature and, unfortunately, value them in an outsized way so they covet the rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory, fragrant woods, etc. as representations of nature and spiritual aids. Now that Asian populations are richer and much larger this attitude has become a major problem that threatens many important species with extinction. This possibly relates to the fact that Asian cultures until recently were always more subsistence based than industrial societies.
Burgeoning Asian cultures seem to still have a more possessive attitude towards individual items of nature. However, virtually all of the Asian tourists on the National Geographic Orion are quite cosmopolitan so they blend in easily with Western tourists in terms of their general attitudes to the orangutans.
Q: Are Asian tourists interested in saving the orangutans once they have experienced them at close hand? Do they see them as “native” animals to the Asian region?
It is hard to generalize but conservation does not seem to have the same general cultural urgency for some Asian tourists as it does for some Westerners. Western tourists are often concerned about the state of conservation in the entire world. For instance, I have been surprised at how many Western passengers on the ship have visited Africa and donate to African wildlife conservation! Asian tourists tend to be more “local” in their concerns. Indonesian tourists seem to be the ones most genuinely concerned about the fate of orangutans which some consider one of Indonesia’s “treasures.” Again, I stress that it’s hard to generalize.
Q: What would be your advice to a travel agent who has a client who wants to take this cruise experience? How should an agent describe its unique merits?
When you go on a Lindblad Expedition to Camp Leakey and the Care Center you will have an absolutely amazing experience that no other cruise ship on the planet can provide. It is a truly an exclusive and private experience that money simply cannot buy except through National Geographic Orion. Other travel agents have actually tried to bribe us to get into the Care Center! (It doesn’t work!) You will have an intimate unique experience that you cannot have at any other place on the planet! President Clinton had that experience and he was talking about it for months afterwards!
Q: What is the most satisfying part of your job?
The most satisfying part of my job is releasing rehabilitated wildborn ex-captive orangutans into the wild and having them survive and live to old age in the forest. An orangutan I released into the wild in 1971 still comes to Camp Leakey, has given birth to several offspring, and now has grandchildren. Another very satisfying part of my work is convincing people that orangutan conservation is a necessity by giving talks, writing posts on the internet, and writing articles.
Q: Are you able to adopt an orangutan as part of the worldwide cause to save them? If so, have Asians done this?
Yes, fostering an orangutan at the Care Center costs $100 a year. Again, there have been too few Asian tourists to judge. However, many Asians have fostered orangutan orphans directly through the Orangutan Foundation International website.
Q: The former US president Clinton visited Camp Leakey, what were your impressions of him?
We very much enjoyed President Clinton’s visit. He spent two days with us. He is a warm, articulate, soft-spoken person who was ready to give everyone a few minutes of his time. He was most impressed by the juvenile orangutans at the Care Center and refused to leave the area. The orangutans seemed to like him as well.
Q: Have there been other celebrities who have visited Camp Leakey? If so, who are they and what were your impressions of them?
Actors such as the very famous Julia Roberts and Isabella Rossellini have visited us and actress Stefanie Powers and actor James Cromwell. Julia Roberts is one of the smartest people I’ve met (no joke!) with an unbelievably quick wit and a strong sense of humor! Stefanie Powers and Isabella Rossellini are true conservationists who helped us directly. Stefanie became a good friend. The First Lady of Indonesia was gracious, unassuming, and more beautiful than her pictures. She asked that we name an orangutan after her husband, the President of Indonesia!
For more information: https://au.expeditions.com/destinations/borneo-indonesia/borneo-bali/