LOS ANGELES — They have rescued, raised and released hundreds of baby elephants and orangutans. They have devoted their lives to the animals and their habitats. And they are the stars of the IMAX film "Born to Be Wild 3D."
The 40-minute Warner Bros. documentary, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, opens Friday in IMAX theaters across the country.
It is a breathtaking look at the lives of two women and the animal orphanages they built half a world apart.
Daphne M. Sheldrick, 76, runs her elephant nursery on the edge of Nairobi National Park near Kenya, Africa.
Birute Mary Galdikas, 64, runs her Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in the jungles of Borneo.Slideshow: April and May movies (on this page)
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Freeman introduces them as a pair of real-life fairy godmothers, one who came to the rescue of baby elephants left behind when their mothers were poached for their tusks, and the other who saved orangutans left orphaned when their mothers were driven from rainforests cut down by loggers.
"Both women made the same promise to the animals in their care — to raise them only as long as they needed help and to prepare them to one day return to the wild," Freeman says.
"I was born into this work," said Sheldrick, a native Kenyan. "I had my first orphan animal when I was 3, a little antelope."
Galdikas was born in Germany but moved to Canada when she was 2. Her interest in orangutans started very young with books and parks and her mother's connection to nature, she said. As a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, she met the late paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who not only encouraged and inspired her, but helped her find the right people and the money to get established.
Galdikas and her staff of 200 have returned about 400 orangutans to the wild and have 330 at the care center.
When asked if any one orangutan stands out, she said, "I have known over 700 orangutans. Some stayed longer, some had bolder personalities. It's like choosing among your children, who do you like best?"
But when asked to describe an orangutan's personality, she had no problem.
They are stoic and serene, seldom reactive or outwardly emotional. One might come over and sit by you or take your hand and look into your eyes. There are no theatrics, screaming or hugging. "They might stick around. They might leave. They are totally themselves. They do what they want," she said.
At Sheldrick's orphanage, 130 elephants have been saved. She has 54 trained elephant keepers who stay with the babies 24 hours a day every day, but the same keeper never sleeps with the same elephant two nights in a row.
The elephants must know all their keepers so if one leaves, the animals don't feel the loss of family a second time. It takes about 10 years to prepare a baby elephant for the wild and when it is ready, it is turned over to former orphans who seem to instinctually know when to come for them.
All the keepers are male, because women have their own families to raise and there is some danger in the bush from wild buffalo, rhinos, lions and other animals, Sheldrick said. "I learned that lesson in a very difficult way," she said.
"With my first elephant, I did it all myself. I just hung my dress in her stable at night and thought that was sufficient. When I had to leave that elephant because my daughter was getting married in Nairobi, she died of a broken heart," Sheldrick remembered.
"That taught me you can't get the elephants too fond of any one person because when that person has to leave, as humans do, the elephant thinks it has lost another family member and goes into such psychological decline and trauma that it is life-threatening."
Besides the harsh, rugged and dangerous environment at the orphanages, the women have had to endure the emotion, the pain and the losses that came with their successes.
"There is a lot of sadness around the elephants," Sheldrick acknowledged. "I think the tears I've shed about elephants would fill a bath tub."
For every orangutan they save, seven or eight others die, Galdikas figured.
"What we bring in is like a needle in a haystack," Sheldrick said of the elephants. "I shudder to think how many have perished in lonely isolation out there in the bush. There must be hundreds that are never found and are simply torn apart by predators or die of milk deprivation or thirst."
Both women struggle with the yearly task of fundraising.
The budget for the elephant orphanage depends on how many babies are brought in, Sheldrick said.
It costs between $700,000 and $800,000 a year to run the orangutan center, Galdikas said. In addition, she said they are trying to buy up as much rainforest as they can and that runs $550 a hectare (100 acres).
Neither woman is talking retirement, but both have set up organizations to continue their work — the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Orangutan Foundation International.
The women hope the documentary brings awareness for the animals and environment and raises a little money (you can even adopt an orangutan on the Internet).
Galdikas also hopes people avoid buying products made with palm oil. Orangutans are left homeless when the forests are cut and burned for the oil, which is found in shampoo, detergent, margarine, toothpaste, chips, cookies, cooking oil and other products, she said.
"Born to Be Wild 3D" is not the only documentary coming out this month about African animals. Disney is releasing "African Cats" on April 22, which follows a pride of lions and is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Galdikas and Sheldrick are used to documentary filmmakers stopping by their orphanages, but this was the biggest film that's been done, they agreed.
The women saw it at its premiere in Los Angeles on April 3. And they liked it.
"I'm not used to the big cities," Sheldrick said. "In 3D on the big screen, it was like being there and it was nice to be transported back home."
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