I’m back from Borneo. Two shining weeks of visceral living. The fragile beauty of the rainforest, calling to me amidst the destruction of the smoldering forest stubble, the cruel rows of oil palms marching like an invading army into the national park, the brown sludge rolling into the clear black waterways.
The river is our road through the rainforest. Long, slow klotok* rides at dawn and dusk. Solemn proboscis monkeys waiting in the trees. On the second day, we encounter an orangutan. Waving branches at first, then gradually coming closer. Baby clinging to her side. Silence. The orangutan regards us. I put down my camera and binoculars and drink her in deeply through misty eyes. My heart is crying: “God, what can I do to keep her world pure and free?”
Step back for a moment. Look at the boat driver, the tour group, the orangutan and her offspring. Now pan out over the river, the camp, and the forest. See the orangutans, the monkeys, the wild Bornean pigs, and the clouded leopard. Every living plant and every living being is here today because of the actions of one woman: Dr. Birute Galdikas.
She came here 38 years ago to follow and study orangutans in the wild. By anyone’s standards, she was amazingly brave. Living in a bark-walled hut in the midst of the jungle accompanied by orphan orangutans who clung to her side and bit anyone who tried to remove them. Tracking wild orangutans for days at a time, scrambling through crocodile-infested swamps as her subjects swung through the trees. Suffering from every conceivable tropical ailment, from malaria-induced fevers to a paralyzed, claw-like hand, to weeping jungle ulcers that took months to heal.
My companions on the tour had read her account of those early years, called Reflections of Eden. Everyone wanted to know how she had the guts to fend off flying snakes, blood-sucking leeches, and charging 300-pound male orangutans. Her response was modest: She said that she was too young to know any better.
Dr. Galdikas was brave to face those dangers, and undergo those hardships. But there is a different kind of bravery born of right-thinking and personal responsibility that must endure the test of years. This is the courage required to stand in the path of destruction, facing down the poaching, logging, mining, and palm oil industries and to say: “Here you will not tread.” Therefore, I asked Dr. Galdikas: “How have you kept fighting when all around you the rainforest is being destroyed?” And she replied: “Because I have to.”