Seven years ago I took my younger sister, her family, my mom, my stepfather and my partner Glenn on an overseas holiday to Bali. We went to Gili Islands
and also stayed at the Bali Safari Park for a night. It was there that I had my first Orangutan encounter.
The Bali Safari Park included in our stay an opportunity to hold a baby Orangutan. It was there that I realised how wrong it was. The poor baby Orangutan was being passed from one person to the next so each tourist could have their photo taken. It is not okay to use a wild animal for our entertainment or a photograph. Orangutans can die from a cold sore, get the flu and pick up most of our diseases. After that experience I decided I wanted to do something to help, but did not know how.
After leaving Bali, Glenn and myself went to Nias, which is an island off Sumatra, to go surfing. After this surf trip we hired some transport and went to Gunung Leuser National Park in Northern Sumatra to see some wild Orangutans. We hired a guide and went on a seven hour hike where we saw over a dozen Orangutans in the wild! Whilst observing one female Orangutan from the distance, I was having trouble with my camera fogging up, so I sat down to clean it. The female Orangutan came down from the tree and sat next to me. She was very curious and was sniffing me as I sat there in awe. This was one of the highlights of my life. I felt very privileged as I knew that the orangutan was critically endangered. It is not ok to touch or hold an Orangutan, but she did touch me.
Four years later I went to Sumatra joining Lucy Catt from the Adelaide Zoo on a Raw Wildlife Adventure. This adventure was incredible, and very different from any other holiday I have been on. We visited the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) near Medan and witnessed many orphaned orangutans. I cried most of the time as it broke my heart to see the baby Orangutans without their mothers; they cling to their mothers for over six years, learning to make nests, foraging for food and learning to climb.
"The baby orangutans were waving at us, their arms were out trying to get our attention, some were showing off, and others were squealing."
Photo: SOCP Baby Cage. 'The sadness in their eyes was haunting.'
SOCP is a great organisation and I am so proud of them. They rescue, rehabilitate and release some of these orangutans back into the wild - a wonderful
team of people caring so much for the poor orangutans.
There was a large male orangutan that had over 60 slug pellets in his body and some had gone into his eyes, making him blind. He can never be released back into the wild. He was in a small cage waiting to be moved to a bigger cage when SOCP could raise enough funds to build him one. I asked how much it would cost to build him a new cage, they needed another $10,000 so I promised I would donate that.
I ended up donating AUD$30,000.... SOCP is a NGO, non-government organisation and this was tax deductible.
Photo: SOCP old orangutan quarantine cage.
Doctor Ian Singleton from SOCP took us to the Orangutan Haven, which is a large piece of land (48ha) that has been bought from peoples donations. The plan
is to build small islands for some of the orangutans that can never be released back to the wild, like the blind male 'Leuser', so they can have a
better life out of the cage. The land where the Orangutan Haven is being built was once farmland and they will continue to grow food for the orangutans.
More funds are needed to finish this project. The plan is also to use the Orangutan Haven as an educational tool and get students involved. The Orangutan
Haven is in Medan the capital of Northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
We hiked through the jungle looking for wild orangutans and saw a few. We slept a couple of nights in a cave behind a waterfall which was fun and exciting!
Photo: Waterfall cave
We trekked through rivers and swam at the waterfalls. Our guides were very helpful and became our Jungle brothers.
Photo: Jack at the waterfal
We went river tubing through villages and also had a cooking lesson. We saw lots of Thomas Leaf Monkeys, also known as 'Funky monkeys' - they are endemic to the region. One morning we got up extra early and got to spend some time with a group of them and their babies, we were very lucky. We saw quite a few orangutans, even a mother and her baby.
Photo: Mother and infant Thomas Leaf Monkey
We swam in some mineral hot springs and covered ourselves in mineral mud, jungle day-spa style.
Photo: Jungle Day Spa!
The following year I decided to return to Sumatra to join Raw Wildlife Adventures once again. This time I knew what to expect and asked my friends if they could help in any way by donating whatever they could from my wish-list. I was very lucky that I have some caring friends that were very generous. I collected teddy bears for the baby orangutans and some medical supplies which one friend had left over from his cancer treatment. Another friend donated many medical supplies which she had collected that would otherwise have been thrown away, some of which were out of date and some were from packs. All of these can be used at the orangutan Quarantine centre at SOCP.
Photo: SOCP Quarantine Station 2016 with Raw Wildlife Encounters.
I also bought some dictionaries, some wet (dry) bags, some socks and over a dozen Cargo Pants for the new Rangers that we sponsored to patrol the buffer zone, which is the area between the Gunung Leuser National Park and the palm oil plantations.
I haven't talked about the palm oil plantation, but they are ruining the forest, they are polluting the rivers, they are moving the national park borders,
chopping it down and planting more palm oil trees. They are killing the animals and destroying our planet. The local villagers have
had enough and know their forest is being destroyed. They don't want this to continue, so we have to join forces and are working together to save the
forest and all its creatures.
By joining up with the local villagers and hiring them as Rangers, we are making a difference in a very big way. The first couple of days they found 30 snares and dismantled them. When we were hiking in the jungle we too found a few traps and snares. This Tangkahan Ranger program is a great idea! The 2 villages (Batu Katak and Batu Rong Ring) are very remote and back onto the National Park, so having local people who are paid to patrol the buffer zone is stopping a lot of illegal logging and illegal pet trade, as well as employing them as conservationists. So if anyone would like to help, you can by donating products, money, or by visiting these lovely villages. Let us know if you are going to visit so we can give you some suggestions.
"If you love nature, you will love these villages and the people, as well as all the wildlife."
Photo: The Rangers of Tangkahan.
Photo: When I gave some of the Rangers some Cargo pants so they could have a uniform to patrol in! They were so happy and 'Boy' at Batu Rong Ring was dancing like he was the Karate Kid, because he was so excited he could not control himself. I wish I had videoed him, it was priceless!
We visited a village, Tangkahan, which was on the river. Tangkahan is one of the nicest places I have been to and the people are so caring. They have seven elephants which were rescued from torture in Malaysia. They were DNA tested & returned to Tangkahan. This village is dedicated to looking after the Sumatran elephant. We fed and washed the elephants, which was a magical experience. The elephants are walked to the mineral springs twice a day and are kept behind an electric fence. They are treated with so much love and respect and it shows in their nature.
There was one male elephant, his name was Tao, he was beautiful with big long tusks and such a gentle, loving nature. I kept kissing him and talking to him. I scrubbed his toe nails and his tusks and I scrubbed him all over, and then his handler told him to roll over. This experience was definitely the highlight of my trip
\Tao has now fathered 3 baby elephants and they are so cute, and covered in wiry hair. One of the babies is a bit of a rascal and ran into me, covering my camera in mud. My lovely jungle brother Doman took my camera from me and sat on a log and cleaned my camera while I continued to wash the elephants. Doman then took lots of great photos with my camera. This is how lovely all our guides were; always helping, nothing was too much for them, whether it was pulling off leeches from me or making tasty gluten free meals for me: holding my hand crossing the river or down steep sections of the Jungle. “Be careful Miss Jo” all the time. I taught Doman some Aussie slang, he taught me some Indonesian. We joked and laughed, he even pulled my finger, then rolled around laughing for ages. We really had a great time.
At Batu Rong Ring we visited a school that Jess McKelson was just starting up. We took paints, brushes, coloured pencils, pens and colouring books. She organised for 20 children to meet up but over 40 children came with a few mothers! We only had 4 poster size cardboards for all the kids to draw on. They worked together to draw their favourite things about conservation. It was so cute, they did not even know what to do with the paint and paint brushes, as they had never seen them before. They were patient, polite and very sharing. They sang us a few songs: the whole time I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, it was a very heart touching moment.
There was no toilet or bathroom so we are working to get some donations together to make this happen. There were no rubbish bins. We had been given some second hand clothing and gave it out, that was lovely to see their faces. When it was time for the children to go, each one of them came up to me to shake my hand and then they placed their hands together on their forehead. This was so beautiful, I have never seen this kind and emotional gesture from all of the children. They were not told to do this, it was just in their hearts to show their appreciation. I find this very hard to write, as I get so emotional every time I think of how very little these people have, but how happy and appreciative they are. We had some pens and gave them to the mothers that were there, they were so happy, chatting away, smiling and so damn happy they had a pen. Just beautiful. Most of the mothers came up to me and told me that they loved Jessica, they really appreciate her efforts. If you would like to donate any books, sports equipment, clothing, anything you think may help this cause, please let me know and we will organise it.
Raw Wildlife Encounters certainly opened up my eyes and has changed me for the better. I will always keep a special place in my heart for Jessica and my Jungle Brothers.
Photo: Jason at Batu Rongring with a vine on his head!
The last day of my trip, Jason, one of my favourite local guides, (actually I think they all were my favourite!) who was brought up by his father in the jungle, never got to read or write but knows so much about the jungle and wanted to take me to see the big tree he loved so much. He got up very early the last morning and arranged a wakeup coffee to be sent to my hut, before we decided to jungle trek up the river.
We climbed through a rock entrance, brushing off spider webs, pulling off leeches, climbing over logs, under branches and chopping back leaves. I was thinking, 'stuff this, let’s go back!’ but I kept on going with an open mind. Eventually, Jason says "I can smell an Orangutan!" I was then very excited. Next minute he says, "There it is!"
I look around and am thinking, “what??? a big rock wall??” "There is the big tree," Jason said. I did not believe him... I went over and touched it and it was the biggest tree I have ever seen. It was so big! I only had my camera with one lens and I could not fit the whole tree in. We could not get all the way around it. Later Jason went back and measured it for me and it was 26.37 metres in diameter.
I decided to tip all the guides on the last day, they were so not expecting anything. Later I found out that they all put their tips in together to go towards buying some wood to build another hut and deck for the project. These guys are amazing.
RAW WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS and JESSICA MCKELSON you are the BEST. Thank you.