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Raw Angel

Helen Hargreaves

I will always consider myself very lucky to have met Jess in 2009, when as a volunteer at Melbourne Zoo, I became aware that she was escorting a group to Tangkahan, a place very special to her! She had decided that an effective way to engage people in the conservation of both the orangutans and the Gunung Leuser ecosystem was to take tours to Northern Sumatra so they themselves could experience the hospitality of the Karonese people and see the orangutans in their natural habitat.  This was to be my first trip to an incredibly interesting and diverse place. 

Previous articles by Vicki and Maxime have described the friendships forged with the local people and in particular with a number of the Rangers and the mahouts. Jess has certainly hand picked people who will support her vision for the region and work with her in valuing and protecting their own heritage. Ika, Bim Bim, Jack and the mahouts all ensured that I felt welcome as well as looking after my safety and helping me on many of the more difficult walks. Their patience and humour was unfailing.

I have now been to Medan and Tangkahan three times and the most memorable days were the ones spent in the rainforest either walking, or being with elephants, observing the vegetation and listening to the sounds of a living healthy ecosystem. Cicadas, flying lizards, the dance arena of a peacock, the gentle voices of the mahouts and the excitement of seeing wild orang utans high up in the branches and the scratch marks on trees of the Asian bear. All of this was accompanied by the soft tread of the elephants. What an incredibly privileged adventure had been offered to me to see such a special place that is in need of protection from the mining, palm oil and timber industries.

Sleeping in the rainforest, either in the goat cave or in little bamboo shelters or tents added another dimension to our senses as night fell suddenly and new sounds began. Each morning the elephants were washed in the river watched by curious local villagers who rarely come across this animal even though they live on the edge of the Gunung Leuser national park. This provided the mahouts with an opportunity to explain a little about these intelligent animals and about their own work in the protection of the national park.

Since 2009, Raw Wildlife Encounters has worked in partnership with the local authorities to bring employment to the villagers as well as to encourage and support initiatives which are beneficial to the community. Consequently, there is now funding for a student to attend university in Medan, assistance to ensure that the rivers around Tangkahan are kept clean of rubbish, and an English Club to provide the children with the opportunity to learn our language. Many of Raw’s guests have helped to contribute to these initiatives either by providing supplies for the school or volunteering their time to help on one of the projects. I have been fortunate to witness the growth of Raw and been privy to Jess’s hard work and commitment as she continues to support and contribute to the future of this community and that of the orang-utans.

Upon returning from my first visit to Tangkahan, Raw Wildlife Encounters was in its infancy and Jess  needed money to support the conservation and protection of the orangutans. I blithely said that I would be able to put on ‘Ivanhoe’s Longest Lunch’, a three course sit down meal on my back deck. Initially I thought 40 people would be good but replies kept arriving and we ended up with 50 guests! A great success! Fortunately I have very good friends who can cater, wash dishes and generally run around filling in the gaps. I provided the venue, sent out invites, co-ordinated the function and sourced  silent auction items.

In August 2014 I organised my 7th fundraiser, Sunday brunch for 44 people. Ian Singleton spoke about his work at SOCP and his vision for the Orangutan Haven as well as how SOCP mounted a legal challenge against one of the palm oil companies for illegally clearing forest for plantations and won! He inspired the guests to not give up hope but to help in any way that they were able, even something as simple as signing petitions!

Over the past 4 years these events have raised just over $36,000 for various Raw projects in Northern Sumatra. Most of the funds have gone to SOCP to assist with building an enclosure for the baby orangutans at the quarantine centre and to support the purchase of land for the Orangutan Haven and it’s education centre. The volunteers who help Jess have many different skill sets and they have chosen to assist in a way that is comfortable to them. Some are IT savvy, others are great with proofreading articles or helping put together submissions for grants, others have been able to inspire their work colleagues to help with organising community walks for the cause. Many have been inspired by their own visit to Tangkahan and have come home with a desire to help in the conservation of the region and the orang utans. There is no one way to assist with promoting an awareness of the orang-utans or of the importance of the  Gunung Leuser Ecosystem but what it does need is people to help. If many people each do a little we can then achieve a lot!

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