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Jessica McKelson

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.
One of the first areas of focus was on supporting the development of another local community between Batu Katak and Tangkahan, named Batu Rongring. Once again, the local community called upon a Jessica and her team to develop ecotourism as an alternative income, opposed to working in the palm oil plantations and illegal logging and poaching. Since September until now, Jessica has been helping establish the local community organisation 'Lembaga RELASI' to train, develop and commence spatial planning of the area for ecotourism.
Since September 2016, Jessica also commenced establishing a local charity Yayasan named 'Raw Conservation Indonesia'. This newly established charity has seen the realisation of several programs which Jessica has initiated or is co managing.

1. The Rangers of Tangkahan Program: Ten local villagers patrol 20km of the buffer zone of the Gunung Leuser National Park and influence other community members to halt illegal activities, develop confidence and a following to protect their natural resources, whilst converting them to alternative incomes. As key role models they are working closely with Jessica and the RAW team to develop an example of how local communities can protect and restore their assets for the future.

2. The second initiative Jessica has started is the Sumatran Dog Health Program: This program gives free medical health care, sterilisations and support to all dogs in the areas RAW supports. Starting in April 2016, Jessica seen a huge animal welfare problem, and decided to do something about this issue. It has formed tight relationships with the local communities and also works towards developing empathy towards other species. To date over 79 animals have been sterilised and over 100 now are being treated every month.

3. In November 2016, Jessica and her team also started the Environmental Club in a primary school at Batu Rongring. With a high drop out rate and with most kids in this village not being able to read or write, this club has commenced to teach them about conservation values, rubbish management and the rainforest they live next too, influencing the children to stay at school and not leave to work in the palm oil industry. This club is an extension to the already developed Tangkahan English Club, in which RAW supported the start up in 2010.

These exciting community conservation initiatives have been able to cement Jessica's intimate relationship with the local Karonese communities and has given her a family name in their 'marga' structure. Jessica and her RAW team are very well respected on all levels and she continues to work closely with leading conservation Non Government Organisations (NGO) to also support them with key efforts along with grassroots developments. 

In October 2016, Jessica was invited by the national ecotourism body, INDECON, to be the Keynote Speaker about RAW's unique model and local community developments. It is recognised as a leading initiative by the Indonesian ecotourism community and Jessica continues to be a key stakeholder in membership.

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