This interview was conducted by Selva Ozelli
How did your interest in working with Orangutans come about? Were you influenced by Jane Goodall by any chance?
I began my involvement with orangutans 50 years ago in the field of primate cognition and learning. As a graduate student studying animal behavior at California State University, Fresno, CA, I was given the opportunity to become the first person to teach symbolic communication to a captive juvenile orangutan named Aazk (1973-1975) who was living at the now Chaffee Zoological Park. I moved to Oklahoma after graduating to teach sign language to chimpanzees at the Institute for Primate Studies (1975-1977). While working on my doctoral program at the University of Oklahoma, I was given the opportunity to go to Indonesian Borneo by B.M.F. Galdikas, and became the first person to teach sign language to ex-captive orangutans in the species' natural environment, the forests of Tanjung Puting Reserve (now a National Park) (1978-1980; 1981). This pioneering research took place at the Camp Leakey research station, named after Dr. Louis Leakey, the paleoanthropologist who gave Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and B.M.F.Galdikas their start.
One of the juvenile orangutans at Camp Leakey, Princess, adopted me as her father. I was able to teach Princess over 30 signs that she used to express her interests in obtaining items and activities of interest as well as describing her environment. I also taught sign language to an adult orangutan named Rinnie who lived across the river from Camp Leakey. Rinnie learned over two dozen signs to name referents and to request items and activities of interest. Princess joined three other orangutans in an 18 month study of sign learning which became my PhD dissertation project. All of my ex-captive orangutan students were in the process of being rehabilitated and they continued their journey to a life of freedom in the forests of Tanjung Puting at the end of my research program.
Jane Goodall definitely was an influence in my interest in working with chimpanzees and orangutans even though I met her well before I began my studies with orangutans. During my time in Indonesian Borneo, I assisted in the rehabilitation efforts of dozens of orangutans confiscated from the illegal pet trade and monitored the phenology of the local rainforest ecosystem. Galdikas and I started the first orangutan advocacy organization, the Orangutan Foundation International in the mid-1980s and I served as the Vice President for 18 years. My own foundation, the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF) honored Jane Goodall with the Pongo Award which annually brings together hundreds of environmentally-minded citizens locally in Los Angeles to celebrate local and global environmental achievement, activism, advocacy, orangutan conservation, and other endangered species preservation efforts.
Tell us about the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (https://www.orangutanrepublik.org).
Founded in October 2004 as the Orang Utan Republik Education Initiative (OUREI), the mission of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF) has remained true to its founding principles - to save the orangutans of Indonesia through conservation education, outreach initiatives, and innovative collaborative programs that inspire and call people to action. We expanded our mission in 2015 as OURF became the US chapter of The Orangutan Project, enabling us to embrace a much larger portfolio of projects that aim to save orangutans and their habitat.
I have always believed that saving orangutans means saving their forest home, the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and that only the people of Indonesia and Malaysia can ensure their protection. As an US based nonprofit, we best serve orangutans and their habitat when we support local organizations and young conservationists and educators develop community-based programs that address the key factors of apathy, lack of education, poverty and fear.
Working under the ethos "Free to be Wild," OURF envisions a time when the people of Indonesia accept that orangutans and all other species that inhabit their rainforests have a right to live, and that their forests can be shared and utilized sustainably for the benefit of both animals and people.
The problems facing orangutans are immense. However, OURF and its partners believe that educating local people about their plight, teaching them about the importance of their tropical rainforests, and supporting sustainable development initiatives can enable the orangutan and the great forests of Indonesia and Malaysia to survive.
Tell us about your foundations, accomplishments/projects and collaborations.
Collaboration is an essential aspect of OURF's efforts and accomplishments.
In 2005, we initiated the Orangutan Caring Week, which later gained official recognition in Indonesia, thanks to the Minister of Forestry in 2005 and the Indonesian Legislature in 2006. We have continued to lead and promote this weeklong event every year.
From 2005 to 2019, we were actively involved in establishing and supporting the Orang Utan Caring Club of Indonesia (CPOI). In 2010, we launched the "Mobile Education and Conservation Unit" so that CPOI could provide education and training to villagers near orangutan habitats. This program aimed to reduce conflicts and enhance sustainable community development. CPOI later became its own Foundation (YPOI) and began administering its own programs.
We shifted our support in 2019 to the Sustainable Green Sumatra Foundation (YSHL) in North Sumatra providing oversight and funding. They established the Community Education and Conservation Program aiming to provide education and training to villagers near Gunung Leuser National Park and improve overall stewardship of the park and buffer zone for wildlife, including orangutans.
Established and administered tree-planting programs in and around Gunung Leuser National Park, North Sumatra with CPOI/YPOI/YSHL to improve future habitat for orangutans and wildlife, buffer zone protection, and other environmental benefits (2007-2023).
Starting in 2006 with a single scholarship, we have since sponsored 274 Orangutan Caring Scholarships to provide tuition for undergraduate students in the natural sciences living in orangutan range provinces in Indonesia. These scholarships are administered by the local orangutan organizations: Orangutan Information Center, Yayasan Palung, Borneo Nature Foundation, and the Centre for Orangutan Protections. Over 160 young men and women have graduated and many have gone into conservation nonprofit or wildlife management careers. We also have sponsored the LP Jenkins Memorial Fellowship program providing funding for graduate students conducting orangutan and rainforest research, fostering a culture of learning and research for orangutan conservation.
In 2006, we organization the Sumatran Orangutan Conference Workshop and Summit focusing on the killing of orangutans, identified key concepts and curricula to address the issue, then organized and sponsored the Sumatran Orangutan Education Consortium comprised of five NGOs: Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, Sumatran Orangutan Society, Fauna & Flora International, Leuser International Foundation and Orang Utan Caring Club of North Sumatra (2006-2007). We also administered funds from USF&W to deliver standardized curricula to target groups in Sumatra by four Consortium partners (2007).
We created and funded an Indonesian documentary program producing two DVD products: "Sumatran Orangutans" (2006) and "A Princess Meets Princess" about Bornean Orangutans (2009) with former Miss Indonesia.
We created and implemented a North Sumatra ecotour program to support the local economy and OURF following the Indonesian Ecotour Network principles (2008, 2009). Partnered with Orangutan Odysseys (Australia) to promote responsible ecotourism in Central Kalimantan to support the local economy and OURF (2012, 2013, 2018, 2022/23).
We partnered with The Orangutan Project and Orangutan Land Trust and co-created World Orangutan Events with these institutions to oversee International Orangutan Day and Orangutan Caring Week (2014-2019) and co-created California Orangutan Alliance with Orangutan Conservancy (2014-2018).
OURF also established the Pongo Environmental Awards to recognize individuals and organizations that have contributed to the improved understanding and appreciation of orangutans, endangered species, and rainforest habitat; and for improving conditions for orangutans and other animals globally (2014-2023).
Finally OURF became the USA-chapter of The Orangutan Project and has funded numerous organizations and projects (2015-2023) totaling over $3.3M in support.
Tell us about the Orang Utan Republik Foundation's Pongo Awards.
The Pongo Environmental Awards, presented by the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF), have a dual (or twofold) purpose: to raise funds for OURF's crucial work to save wild, critically endangered orangutans from extinction and to honor those who have made significant contributions to understanding and appreciating orangutans, endangered species, rainforest habitat, and improving conditions for orangutans and other animals.
Additional information on the Pongo Awards:
Among this year's honorees at the Pongo Awards, presented by the Orang Utan Republik Foundation, will be Heal The Bay to clean up our beaches in Los Angeles. World-renowned photographer, filmmaker, scientist, and author James Balog who, for over 30 years, has documented our changing planet and its challenges to our future for National Geographic, etc. other credits. And the Acehnese nonprofit, Forum Konservasi Leuser for its decades of work protecting biodiversity, orangutans, in the iconic Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Previous Pongo Award honorees in addition to Dr. Jane Goodall have included:
Since 2014, the relevance of the Pongo Awards has been broadened to include recognizing and honoring individuals and organizations on an annual basis that have contributed to the improved understanding and appreciation of orangutans and endangered species, rainforest habitat, and for improving conditions for orangutans and other animals globally.
2023 Pongo Environmental Award Recipients* include:
James Balog and his organization, Earth Vision Institute, for his many decades as a scientist, photographer, and filmmaker documenting with stunning imagery the changes taking place on our fragile planet.
Heal the Bay, for four decades of environmental advocacy, science, education, and protecting the coastal waters in the Greater Los Angeles area.
Forum Konservasi Leuser (FKL) and their leadership including Rudi Putra, for many years of effective environmental activism, advocacy and conservation of the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh, Sumatra.
2021 Pongo Environmental Award Recipients* include:
Jonnie Hughes, for Netflix & Silverback Films production of "David Attenborough-A Life on Our Planet," for creating a visually stunning testament to the beauty and threatened status of the wild places and a call to action to save the Planet.
Dianna Cohen and Plastic Pollution Coalition for working tirelessly toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment.
Ashley Leiman, OBE, and the Orangutan Foundation UK, for dedication and commitment in administering effective projects and programs for over 30 years to conserve orangutans and their rainforest habitat in Central Kalimantan.
Aspiration Financial Services, for being an innovative B-corp financial institution that divests from fossil fuels and supports charities and green activities that put Planet & People first.
Tomy Winata & Artha Graha Peduli Foundation for establishing and dedicated commitment to Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation, Sumatran Tiger conservation & holistic management of the natural ecosystems in S. Sumatra.
2020 Pongo Environmental Award Recipients* include:
The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, and CEO Jamartin Sihite, for ensuring the long term survival of orangutans in Kalimantan.
Mongabay, and CEO and founder Rhett Butler, an award-winning source of environmental news reporting and analysis including the establishment of Mongabay-Indonesia.
HAkA, and Chairperson and Co-founder Farwlza Farhan, for many years of exemplary leadership in Acehnese conservation protecting the Leuser Ecosystem.
"If Not Us Then Who?", and Project Director and Founder Paul Redman for bringing awareness and advocacy to the role indigenous and local people play in protecting our planet.
"Guardians of Life", and film Writer, Producer, and Director Shaun Monson for a stunning and impactful cinematic call to action to save our imperiled world.
2019 Pongo Environmental Award Recipients* include:
The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, and Executive Director Justin Winters, for sustained and significant environmental activism and philanthropy.
Netflix, and producers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, for their television series “Our Planet”.
Dr. Anne Russon for her 30 years of cognitive and behavioral studies of the Bornean orangutan.
The Gecko Project and Tom Johnson for investigative journalism uncovering the corrupt aspects of palm oil.
2018 Pongo Environmental Award Recipients* include:
Hardi Baktiantoro, founder and director of the Centre for Orangutan Protection, for his activism and advocacy saving orangutans in Indonesian Borneo over many years.
Animal Planet, for educating the public over many decades about the diversity of life and struggles of animals through effective storytelling on television.
Bill Weir, of CNN, for effective environmental reporting on the plight of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge under the Trump Administration’s efforts to open the area to oil and mining.
Greenpeace, for decades of grassroots activism, focused on protecting endangered species and habitat and on the efforts to end conflict palm oil around the world.
2017 Pongo Environmental Award Recipients* include:
Dr. Cheryl Knott, for significant field work furthering our understanding of the Bornean orangutan as well as dedicated efforts to conserve the species and educate the public over the past quarter century.
Carnegie Airborne Observatory & Dr. Greg Asner, for creating a aerial platform and remote sensing technology that has provided the most detailed assessments of the biodiversity of natural ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, home of the orangutan.
Rainforest Action Network, for over three decades of activism benefiting the rainforests and campaigns highlighting the effects of large-scale agriculture on rainforest ecosystems.
Rainforest Action Network, for over three decades of activism and advocacy benefiting the rainforests of the world and campaigns highlighting the detrimental effects of large-scale agriculture on rainforest ecosystems, wildllife, and people.
Fisher Stevens, for “Before the Flood” a documentary that discusses the dangers of climate change, its effects on endangered species, ecosystems, and native communities, and the possible solutions.
Fisher Stevens Acceptance Speech Pongo Environmental Award
Louie Psihoyos's Pongo Award acceptance speech for "Racing Extinction"
You mentioned you were writing about your life's work in a book, tell us more about your upcoming book titled "Out of the Cage".
I began my unpredictable journey into the world of orangutans after being given the opportunity to leave my doctoral research project with chimpanzees at the University of Oklahoma for the distant forests of Borneo, where I taught sign language to a number of ex-captive orangutans destined to return to the wild. I was the first person to teach symbols and signs to examine learning and communication abilities of orangutans. Being a zoologist and biologist, my time in the Bornean rainforest gave me a much wider perspective about the fragility and importance of this threatened ecosystem. The experience transformed me to embrace conservation, environmentalism, and orangutan advocacy, over a five-decade period.
My book, "Out of the Cage", examines not only my historical exploration of the red ape's intellect and abilities to learn signs, but also my realization that orangutans, whose name translates to "persons of the forest," deserve to be called such. I discovered that they really were persons who should be endowed with all basic rights. Orangutans should be supported by conservation efforts since the fate of the critically endangered great red ape is inexorably tied to the future of the rainforests, one of the "lungs of the earth".
Do you have any other publications?
I published a number of scientific and popular publications on a variety of topics over the past 48 years: https://ourf.info/images/documents/glspublications.pdf
More recently, I co-authored a Children's book titled "Princess-based on a true story of friendship".
What are your thoughts on children's involvement with environmental matters? Especially your thoughts on the groundbreaking Montana court decision which ruled that the state had violated the youths' constitutional rights through its promotion of fossil fuels.
I am totally supportive of young people becoming fully engaged in addressing the existential threat of global climate change including pursuing legal action against government and corporate entities that violate their constitutional rights to have a prosperous future. The students in the Montana case against the states promotion of fossil fuels were justified as the states knew full well that their support of the fossil fuel industries were not improving the youth's future but making it worse. I would like to see more class action lawsuits filed on behalf of children against states and industries that are robbing them of a tolerable world in the coming decades.
How can people participate with your foundations causes?
Our Foundation provides a platform for the public to become involved in our cause in numerous ways from volunteering to simply supporting our various programs. For more ideas, go to https://www.orangutanrepublik.org/get-involved/.
How can people reach you?
What a beautiful interview... in this world we see people who are kind to animals... kindness to animals is very important...
Gary is one one precious few people that have changed the world and of course his great wife as well. I lucky to know them and they have also made me a better person