Raw Wildlife Encounters (RAW) founder and CEO, Jessica McKelson developed her leading edge eco-tourism model from spending six months in Sumatra, Indonesia after becoming the youngest Australian to be awarded the International Specialised Skills Institute (ISSI) Fellowship in 2006, awarded by the Pratt Foundation. During these six month, Jessica was able to study and evaluate conservation programs, as well as work closely with leading conservationists. She also developed a deep passion for animal conservation during this confronting visit to Indonesia’s orangutan habitats. “Seeing so many orphaned orangutans and no forests for them to go to affected me on a deep emotional level. Ever since then, I have dedicated my life to being an ambassador for protecting orangutans and their habitats”, says Jessica and gained a thorough understanding of how she could work closely with the local communities over a longer period for a positive impact.
Once back in Australia, Jessica founded RAW, whilst still working at Melbourne Zoo (2000-2013), and began to develop a strategy for how she could work closely with the local communities in North Sumatra over a longer period of time for a more positive impact. Working closely with the local Tangkahan community within North Sumatra, she was able to assist and support them in turning their focus from illegal logging and poaching for financial gain, to a community that now no longer is involved in illegal practices. The community, once it understood the damage they were causing, made a remarkable and inspiration decision to become custodians, and be responsible for the forest, and wildlife within their area.
Jessica began to lead eco-tours to Tangkahan and other key locations in North Sumatra, bringing in overseas travellers to experience the wonders of the community, forest and wildlife. She worked closely with the locals, developing and taking them through training programs that provided them with the understanding and skills to become local guides, and share their local knowledge and cultures. With the success of bringing together a local community, and developing the RAW Sumatra Indonesia Programs, she was able to engage in a number of leading edge initiatives that allowed RAW, herself and RAW's travellers to give back into these communities they visited.
After developing a successful Indonesian team, in 2012, Jessica opened up a local travel agency company named 'PT Rimba Lestari', which allowed her staff to manage and input into their own travel agency. This became the sister agency for RAW, and Jessica trained and hired only local staff members for this company.
During 2012, Jessica was asked to consult and support a local North Sumatran community named Batu Katak, which was two hours from Tangkahan, to develop an eco-tourism model as an alternative source of income, as opposed to illegal logging and poaching activities. The reputation of Jessica and her team is highly regarded by many local communities throughout North Sumatra as leaders in the eco-tourism industry. Batu Katak has since developed into the latest ecotourism location for North Sumatra. Jessica and her team are still involved but have taken a step back and witnessed the extraordinary movement of locals managing their own assets sustainably without any further illegal practices.Jessica not only worked for RAW, but also successfully gained a position in 2012 with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, as Director Quarantine and Pre Release of Orangutans. Jessica remained in this position full time until September 2016, where she made the decision to leave and focus on RAW.