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.