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Author: Jessica McKelson
Source: SOCP
Date: 18 October, 2013

Jess McKelson at SOCP in North Sumatra / Credit: Raw Wildlife Encounters

My first time to Indonesia was in 2006. I was a naive girl who was excited about seeing the jungles of Asia, where I had only learned about this from TV documentaries and reading books. Secretly I was a little nervous, as travelling to the unknown, remote jungles of Indonesia was a little dangerous which made the journey even more exciting to be a part of.

I was volunteering for an orangutan organization at the time, dedicating over three hours per week to raising awareness about the possible extinction of one of our closest living relatives. I always had a deep passion to work with Primates, and consequently was working with the orangutans at Melbourne Zoo. Wanting to visit the cousins in the wild, I packed my bags ready for an adventure of a lifetime and left with one of my work colleagues to go look at orangutans and the issues surrounding their survival!

Most importantly, it was my first time when I was able to go and see the orangutans in the wild. Vast, dense rainforests with animals like flying lizards, red leaf monkeys, hornill birds and other exciting jungle animals that come out at night time only like the slow loris and Tarsier.

As we began to descend in the airplane, I could see this enormous green life form from the air. I tapped my friend on the shoulder and said ‘Look at the jungle! I am so excited; there is so much of it.”

I soon realised I was seeing row after row of formed tree plantations. My friend said ‘Jess, sorry to disappoint you, but they are palm oil plantations.’  My childhood dream was nothing more but a mere fantasy that I had seen from books and tv shows. I was seeing so much palm oil, which had replaced the rainforest, and from the airplane it just gave me such perspective on how many plantations had taken over the natural habitat, something you could not grasp from ground level. As far as your eye could see into the horizon were these palm oil monocultures, with young trees and some evidence of the past rainforest home which orangutans lived in.

Palm Oil Monoculture - Credit: Lyndel May Stewart

Palm Oil Monoculture – Credit: Lyndel May Stewart

The sight of over 500 orangutans in a rescue centre further increased my feeling of sadness. These animals were the victims of palm oil development, the refugees of their own environment as they were displaced from their homes and taken over by palm oil monocultures.

Flying into the island of Sumatra and witnessing the previous devastation of natural habitat, I was hoping deep down that North Sumatra would present a more positive outlook. But once again, as we flew into Medan, Capital City of North Sumatra, I could see the Gunung Leseur National Park in the distance and surrounded by palm oil monocultures. The orangutan rescue centre in North Sumatra, presented similar problems of displaced animals, however they only had smaller numbers housed in their centre. What was positive was the animals had a future, as they were being released into safe forest areas, monitored and recorded for research on reintroducing animals back into the wild. Seeing the amazing work the staff on the ground were doing to save the orangutan, gave me hope.

Palm Oil is an ingredient which is used in most of our food products, cosmetics, washing detergents, biofuel – you name it! If you look at the back of a packet of biscuits or chips next time you go to the supermarket, try and find palm oil as an ingredient. Unfortunately, in Australia it is not compulsory to label a product which has palm oil in it (or palm oil has so many other names which it is referred too in the ingredients).  Australia also has not committed to only importing sustainably produced palm oil. So as a consumer we are not very well informed as to the origins of the product and if the product or company has sourced sustainable palm oil.

Watching from the aero-plane gave good perspective on how large the issues were surrounding the survival of Indonesia’s natural ecosystems.

If I had not seen the forest from air, I would have not been so deeply moved to do something within Australia and Sumatra, following a career now working for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).

The Earth Wins Film (, will enable people to get a good view from a different perspective. This film will provide us with a great opportunity to see from a ‘birds eye view’ the beauty and landscape, challenges and complexity of Mother Nature from all around the world. It will also provide us with a time to reflect so we can understand how we fit into the natural world, and how we in our daily lives contribute to this change.

Written by Jessica McKelson

International Operations Manager SOCP,

Co-Founder Earth 4 Orangutans

Director Raw Wildlife Encounters


Jessica McKelson will be a guest panelist at the upcoming The Earth Wins simulcast event at the VMAX Village Cinema Southland. For more details, click here.


Websites for other information on orangutans and the palm oil: