Working in eco-tourism Melbournian Jessica McKelson’s RAW journey
The article was originally published in the Manza Magazine and has been republished here with permission. By Becky Sweetman.
I love to travel and am a devoted fan of wildlife. Combining travel with being able to watch wildlife in its natural habitat doing what it naturally does, is my idea of living. However, with all the stories you hear floating around these days, it is hard to know which travel companies are helping and advocating for the animals they work with, and which ones are merely exploiting them.
Luckily, I came upon Raw Wildlife Encounters (RAW). Originating from Australia, RAW is in its basic form is an accredited travel agency, but beneath the surface, do a lot more than that. Started in 2009 by 34-year-old Melbournian Jessica McKelson, the agency run tours in which travellers can take part in unique, life-changing orangutan and other wildlife encounters and learn more about them, with a large portion of the holiday cost going directly to helping conservation efforts. With tour options mostly in and around Sumatra, RAW believe in grass root community eco-tourism and promote sustainable travel within all the destinations they work, with other tour options available inside of Borneo (Malaysia), Sri Lanka, Africa, Brunei, Mongolia, Congo and Uganda.
RAW have a unique style of only taking small groups at a time so the travellers are able to personally connect with the communities and conservation projects that their travel dollars support. Since their inception, RAW and their travellers (through their associated charity) have generated over AUD 1mil back into the local eco-tourism economy within North Sumatra, and over AUD 500k has gone back into the orangutan and community based conservation initiatives.
Founder & CEO, Jessica McKelson developed this eco-tourism model after experiencing four months in Sumatra Indonesia following on from becoming the youngest Australian to be awarded the International Specialised Skills Institute (ISSI) fellowship. During her time in Sumatra she was mentored by leading conservationists, and realized the importance of working closely with local communities and spreading the knowledge so they can make a positive and lasting impact.
On her return to Melbourne, whilst still working at Melbourne Zoo, she began working closely with the local Tangkahan community to support them and deter their focus from illegal logging (thus destroying the endangered wildlife’s habitats) and poaching, to instead being custodians and responsible for the forest and wildlife within it. She began to lead tours to Tangkahan so that travellers can see the wonder of the community and wildlife and see where their travel dollars are of help. She trained many locals to be guides and share their knowledge and cultures. With these successful tours, Jessica was able to engage in a number of leading edge initiatives that allowed RAW and RAW’s travellers to give back to these communities they visited.These life-changing travel experiences have turned into a positive future for everyone involved - RAW, the travellers, the communities, the forests and the wildlife within it.
Jessica is now based in Medan, North Sumatra where, apart from being managing director of all of the travel programs, she also plays guide for many of the eco-tours, giving a wealth of knowledge and advocacy for the animals and local communities to all travelers who cross her path. Aside from the local guides they train, they also involve other conservation experts to run their tours including Zoo Keepers from New Zealand and Australia.
As previously mentioned, Jessica has also been involved in many other projects and initiatives.
Previously Director of Quarantine and Pre-Release of Orangutans for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), she now focuses on her company
but also leads a number of community conservation programs in North Sumatra which help to provide employment for locals that reduces
their reliance on activities that harm the environment. Conservation programs include: The Sumatran Dog Health Program to educate about domestic dog health and welfare and provide free vaccinations and sterilizations in the community as well as deterring the growing
dog meat industry; Community Children’s Club and Environmental Club to help support the local children and teach the importance of the local environment and how it can benefit their future; a Community Help Program to provide resources and empower women (and girls) to stay in school and in employment; and the who employs 10 rangers to protect the Leuser ecosystem of North Sumatra,
one of the most biodiverse and important environments on Earth (and the last place where the Sumatran tigers, rhino, orangutans and elephants still
co-exist). According to RAW, there are few other alternatives to creating income for many of the communities that live along the Leuser's edge other
than trapping/snaring animals or working in unsustainable oil palm plantations which have wider humanitarian issues in sensitive biodiverse areas.
Jessica not only spreads the word about conservation, she walks the walk. She has witnessed the complete rainforest destruction within Sumatra and has worked tirelessly to save our closest living relative, the Sumatran orangutan. She has also witnessed communities being displaced as large corporations come in with trans-migrant workers to destroy forests with no emotional connection to the land. Watching people’s livelihoods being destroyed by destructive unsustainable industries is what drives her and her team to keep up their great work.
Jessica states, “By looking at my team as an example, this is what drives me. I see them from illegal loggers and poachers to some of the most inspiring and dedicated advocates to protect their natural resources and heritage. This can be done, it takes time, patience and dedication. In my lifetime I do not want to see wildlife and environments go extinct and we are reaching that point very soon.”
Enjoying an incredible travel experience and saving the planet.
Photos by: Raw Wildlife Encounters; Ted Van Der Hulst Photography; A. Robbins
To find out more about how you can travel with us, please visit our tour page.