Giving sanctuary

Green Lifestyle magazine

Jessica McKelson is changing attitudes towards palm oil production in Indonesia.


Jessica McKelson is changing attitudes towards palm oil production and raising awareness of the destruction of orangutan habitat.

Credit: RAW Wildlife Encounters

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Jessica McKelson didn’t do very well at school. Not because she wasn’t bright, but simply because she spent her time gazing out of the classroom window, itching to get outdoors and work with wildlife.

Her childhood aspiration has certainly paid off. McKelson is not only the head primate keeper at Melbourne Zoo, but is also spearheading an ambitious new project to help save the endangered Sumatran orangutan.
“I don’t necessarily like or agree with zoos,” Jessica says. “I’d always rather be out working in the field. Zoos have their purpose. But I’ve always wanted to do more.”

She found her calling on a trip to Indonesia where she saw the devastation to the country’s rainforests caused by the palm oil and timber industries. She says seeing the impact on orangutans displaced by the rapacious spread of palm oil plantations made her physically sick.

“It was heartbreaking to see animals such as orangutans and sun bears in captivity because their homes had been destroyed, all to meet our demand for palm oil and for no real benefit to the locals,” she says.

Four years ago, Jessica set up RAW Wildlife Encounters, a travel firm that takes small groups of Australian tourists to the forests of Sumatra to see orangutans and elephants first hand. In turn, by employing 10 people on the ground in Sumatra, the business encourages local people to move away from growing palm oil and illegal logging to more sustainable, environmentally friendly jobs.

“Indonesians have a very different cultural attitude to animals than us,” she explains. “There needs to be more education, as well as different sources of income.”

The twin goals of education and conservation have come together in Jessica’s latest project – the construction of four islands in northern Sumatra to house captive orangutans. The project, called Earth 4 Orangutans, has raised enough money from Australian donors to secure a 48-hectare site, with a further $1 million needed to make it suitable for caged orangutans that are unable to be released fully into the wild due to sickness or injury.

“I thought these orangutans deserved more than to sit in cages for 20 or 30 years until they die,” Jessica says. “When I saw (male orangutan) Lueser, who was blinded after being shot over 60 times by a farmer, I thought ‘this is wrong’. I’m someone who thinks if we are going to do something, let’s do it properly. Let’s have a long-term plan.”

That plan involves an education centre at the new sanctuary that will outline the importance of orangutans to locals, as well as the various threats that they face. Attitudes won’t change overnight, but Jessica is hopeful that growing awareness in Indonesia and a push towards using only sustainable palm oil in Australia and other wealthy nations will stop orangutans being pushed to the brink.

“This is the first time something like this has been built in Indonesia,” Jessica says. “It will make a difference. Maybe not for this generation, but certainly the next.”