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Author: Jess McKelson
Source: Cool Australia
Date: 08 November, 2013


‘Leseur’, candidate for Earth 4 Orangutans Project which Jess and Ian Co-founded.
Credit – SOCP

Some people call it an epiphany, some call it a realisation, I called it a responsibility. Arriving back to Australia, it was clear to me that not many people knew much about Palm oil and where it came from. It was also evident that there was little understanding as to how prevalent its use was in everyday items but more importantly there was a lack of awareness of the impact that palm oil plantations have on the natural environment.

I knew then that I had to do more about saving the orangutans and their homes. I felt like I could increase an awareness of unsustainable agricultural practices. I also had a strong desire to go back to Sumatra and work on two aspects of the issue, one at a grassroots level as well as at an international conservational level.

In 2006 I applied to the International Specialised Skills Institute (ISSI) seeking financial support to work with some of the best conservation organizations within Indonesia. I was the youngest Australian to be granted this Fellowship Award, which was funded by the Pratt Foundation. I spent three months in Indonesia in remote locations and communities, learning about the local culture, their attitudes and politics.

This experience also gave me an understanding as to the complexities of working with the Indonesian government as well as with private industry. Much of my time was spent in North Sumatra in a small village named Tangkahan. Here I was able to work with the local community, many of whom had once been illegal loggers in the neighbouring rainforest, and helped them develop skills, which could be beneficial for alternative sustainable livelihoods. This involved such things as running classes where the locals could learn English, talking about how they could utilize the natural beautiful of the rainforest as a tourist attraction.

Since then I have been working to develop community based eco tourism, and this resulted in me starting my own eco-travel agency, Raw Wildlife Encounters. This enabled me to bring guests to the places that I had fallen in love with thus giving many of the local people employment as guides and rangers. This has empowered them to become involved in the future of their local environment – almost like forest guardians. Raw Wildlife Encounters has since expanded to other destinations that support community and environmental conservation outcomes.

Today, I have been able to place over one million dollars into the local communities in Tangkahan through eco-tourism, donations and through development that is sustainable. I employ over 13 staff who work for Raw Indonesia as well as another four staff working in Australia. Raw Wildlife Encounters has recently been recognised as a leading eco-travel agent in Australia due to our sound environmental and ethical travel principles.

My motivation was based on the relationship that I had developed with the Tangkahan community. After listening to their stories, seeing the damage being done to a once pristine ecosystem, and realizing that the villagers themselves were concerned gave me the impetus to make a real change at a grassroots level. Today, it makes me proud to see their pride in their work and in their environment. Now they are the real forest guardians with the power to ensure their vision is also passed onto other surrounding communities who are facing similar issues.

I have also volunteered with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) in North Sumatra Indonesia. This year I spent six months working with my mentor, Dr Ian Singleton, who is at the forefront of orangutan conservation. I know that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be involved directly with saving orangutans and re-releasing them into protected areas of forest. Unfortunately only 6600 remain in the wild, and this Critically Endangered species is a victim of the continued destruction of vast areas of their habitat.

One of my major motivations is when an orangutan arrives at the care centre, often traumatised as well as injured. This reinforces my resolve to continue to fight for their rights of freedom and a safe place to live. Unfortunately there are some orangutans that will not be able to be released back into the wild because of illness or a disability.  Dr Ian Singleton and myself saw a way to use these animals as an educational tool. Together we have developed the Orangutan Haven Project, near Medan, a special education sanctuary that will enable local people to connect with wildlife and habitat conservation.

I am now working full time for SOCP and my energy and efforts are focused on saving the Sumatran orangutan. A lot of people ask me how do I keep up with it all and stay so positive?

Jess and her staff in Aceh looking at wild orangutans
Image – Lyndal May Stewart.

Making a difference is based on what YOU can do. I wanted to make a significant difference based on the people I met and wanting to give them an opportunity to have a future without destroying their natural resources. Surrounding myself with some of the best people in the conservation world has given me a chance to network and follow a dream of working directly in orangutan conservation. Staying positive and having achievable and realistic goals is essential.

Having great mentors was another essential ingredient in my success. Having great mentors means I can seek support, guidance and reassurance. Friends and family have been incredibly supportive of my career path and but at the end of the day, I wanted to make a positive difference to the conservation of orangutans and the preservation of their homes. I am now fortunate to work on this every day with one of the leading orangutan conservation organizations both in Australia and within Sumatra.

Watching THE EARTH WINS Documentary excited me, because I know that everyone will leave with wondering what role do they play on the planet. This documentary film really provokes a chain of thinking and wonder. For me, I was caught up reflecting in in how do we see our future and what environmental decisions will we make for the future? The film, which is shot entirely from air, really gives a great perspective on how the environments are changing and shaping our future. Some name it climate change, some name it man made impacts, some may even call it evolution. This film makes you think about all these elements and gives you the freedom to make your own thoughts around Mother Nature.

The producer, Sara Hine and writer/director, Jerry Grayson are to be congratulated on such an awe inspiring film where so many people now have access to a great insight from seeing Mother Nature from air. I encourage everyone to watch this 40min film and really have time to think about the impact you have on the planet.

Jessica McKelson, International Operations Manager SOCP / Co-Founder Earth 4 Orangutans, Director Raw Wildlife Encounters