[PHOTOS COMING SOON! STAY TUNED!]
I rose with a sense of urgency, because there was so much I wanted to experience and capture before we left. But at the same time I wanted to slow down and take in every last moment. It is not often in life that you feel so connected with a place, and it’s people (and for me, animals!) but I was absolutely present to my connection here and I was already sad to be leaving.
As I squatted in the bathroom washing my hair with the bucket of water, I realized how much I changed over the past 6 days.
Firstly, I had mastered the art of washing my hair without running water, and the lack of a flushing toilet didn’t bother me whatsoever. On the contrary, I had grown to like my new daily rituals because they reflected the simplicity of my new life here. Throwing a bucket of water over my head and heading into the jungle to look after the animals in need is a new routine I would love to continue.
I chuckled to myself as we sped off in the open tray of the hilux to the zoo. In a short week, it had become ‘normal’ to be cruising around in the tray of a ute, overtaking trucks on the inside curb. We were done with telling the lads “this is illegal in Australia!”
I was intrigued to see what a ‘busy day’ at the zoo entailed. Considering that tourists paid the equivalent of 50 cents admission fee and we had barely seen 15 people through the gates on an average day thus far. It was little wonder that there was simply no money to feed the animals, let alone provide basic environmental enrichment and medical care.
I was happy to see rows of scooters at the entrance – at least the locals are interested enough to visit the zoo! But this rapidly turned to dismay as I witnessed the reality of the situation, just like I had been warned. It is absolutely no fault of their own, but local people do not understand how precious their endangered species are. They do not realize the perils of throwing rubbish into the enclosures. My stomach turned as I saw soft drink bottles, ice creams and other items handed to the orangutan, as well as other endangered species. When the gibbon died suddenly yesterday, one of the top differential diagnoses on my list was the fatal ingestion of a plastic or otherwise foreign object. The tourists watched with delight as the Orangutan drank from coke cans (arghhh type 2 diabetes I thought!) and played with plastic bags on their heads.
This brought us to our first interview of the day.
Our first port of call was at the clinic, where COP (Centre for Orangutan Protection) were conducting their weekly ‘Orangufriends’ information seminar, where they teach interested local students about the importance of protecting their wildlife, and hopefully enlist a few new volunteers. They rely heavily upon volunteer support, and especially on busy tourist days like today, when tourists need to be watched like hawks to make sure they are following the rules. I met a lovely local student and Orangufriend named Indah the previous day and she eventually agreed to be interviewed today. Indah was a beautiful, educated and confident young Muslim woman, but thought her English was terrible (it really wasn’t!), hence her reluctance to be interviewed. But she was determined to help raise awareness about the work of Orangufriends so she put on a brave face and the interview went well.
Like all of the COP team and volunteers, Indah was a rare gem. As we had already uncovered, it is very “unpopular and uncool” to work with animals, and especially wildlife, within Indonesian culture. So to volunteer, without the vital few rupiahs to pay for your lunch – well it is unheard of! And yet, I had the pleasure to meet a dedicated young woman who had decided that despite the opinions of her friends and family, she wanted to follow her heart and help the orangutan.
Indah had shared with me during a private conversation the previous day, how she was the only student in her university class of 500-odd students, who was dedicating her thesis to a wildlife subject.
Indah’s thesis is looking at the way in which COP’s educational campaigns were helping to change the way in which the youth in Indonesia viewed wildlife and the importance of protecting their rainforests and endangered species. What a woman! I was immediately in awe of her, and especially when I realized the difficulty of admitting her struggles. She told me in private the previous day, of how her family had essentially forbidden her to work full time in wildlife conservation – and yet despite my best (amateur) interview techniques, I was unable to get her to repeat this on camera.
The interview was frustrating in this sense, but at the same time I was incredibly impressed with the dedication that Indah showed towards her cause at the risk of being ostracized from her friends and family.
It further fueled my idea to have wildlife conservation portrayed as being ‘super cool’ to the Indonesian public.
Now was the prime time for ‘Perth-onality Dr Lulu’ to take hold. I decided to ham it up to the max to my ‘adorning fans’ and hence forth swanned around from enclosure to enclosure, with 2 cameras, 3 assistants and my best friend the diffuser at hand, pretending I was a D-grade celebrity. But in Samarinda – I was the most A-grade they were going to see for many years, so my-oh-my did I work it! My costume change by the python enclosure definitely generated the most interest that afternoon, and I felt a little bad to have had more photographs than the orangtuan that day, but I hopefully I made a lasting impression that ‘wildlife is cool’.
My next ‘interview’ was with Ambon.
At 22 years, he is one of the eldest orangutan at the zoo and the only sexually mature male and does hence not have the cute-cuddly factor of the orphans. But I have to admit he was my clear favourite.
I will never forget my first encounter with Mr Ambon. It was at this point that I truly understood the tragic plight of the Orangutan refugees in Indonesia, when I learnt that Ambon had spent the past NINE YEARS confined to a small prison cage, having committed no crime. The other orangutan in his enclosure, Debby, had been in the cage for even longer. Looking into his eyes, I felt like I was looking into the innocent eyes of a person who had been wrongly accused of murder.
The harrowing part is that he KNEW that he was innocent, and should not be in that cage – and HE KNEW THAT I KNEW! I sat there and looked into his eyes. He looked into mine. He touched my fingers, and he touched my heart. That moment is etched into my soul forever.
This was also the moment that I truly understood that Orangutan share 97% of our DNA. When you look into their eyes, there is nothing different to looking into the eyes of another human being. The words of Leif Cocks rang through my mind… one day we will look upon the incarceration of orangutan like the way we once viewed slavery. At the time it was radical to free them. That was only a few decades ago! I desperately hope that I will both contribute to, and witness the day that animals are given the rights that they deserve.
The final night in Samarinda was just perfect. The lads took us to the most up-market restaurant they would allow. I begged them to take us to somewhere that served beer, but that was “far too expensive, we would rather spend the money to feed the orangutan”. I felt so horrid to have even suggested it. By now, I knew full well that every $5 made such a huge difference to the well-being of the animals, and these guys know exactly where their priorities lie.
Dinner was delicious. A traditional Indonesian buffet washed down with fresh lime and soda, interjected regularly with spontaneous and candid speeches. When I stood up to speak and to present our donation, I was likewise unprepared for the words that came out of my mouth and tears (AGAIN!) that flowed as I expressed my gratitude for the warm hospitality that the team had shown us, and for having changed my life. I spoke from the bottom of my heart when I told the gang that I had a new family in Kalimantan.
As I write this 2 weeks later, I miss them deeply and profoundly.
I realized that the small amount of cash we had raised would go a long way to fund previously unavailable medical equipment, but I realized that more than anything, we had provided moral support to this inspirational group of young activists.
To know that despite facing adversity within their local community, we had given them further proof that that they have the support of the international community, and what they were doing in their daily struggles is so honorable, heroic and incredibly inspiring. Not very often do you meet a person who is dedicated to changing the world every day – and I had just spent an incredible week with six such individuals.
Sipping warm bin tang back at the house that night, we conducted our final interviews whilst the power was on, using torchlights behind diffusers to create some impressive field lighting techniques (great work Courtney!) and had sing-alongs to guitars and harmonicas when the power was out.
I realized how much I was going to miss the COP team. Spending 6 long and emotional days, and 6 entertaining and heartfelt nights together has forged friendships that I know will last the tests of time and distance. I would not have thought that it would be an easy task for 9 people to live harmoniously in a living (and working!) area of 20 square meters, but I was wrong!
And finally I realized that the focus on my future was changed forever. No longer would I be able to tell myself that one day I would be in a position to help the endangered species of the world. There can be no more excuses of waiting for when I make more money, when these guys are earning around $5 day, but making every day count. There can be no more waiting full stop. My life will now be about taking action towards this goal, and taking action every single day.
I cannot ignore the memories that have been etched into my memory forever.
The screams of the Otter wanting water not only to drink, but to swim in, like they are supposed to, rather than being suspended in a hot metal cage.
The Sun Bear’s claws as he reached through the cage.
The depressed and vacant stare in the eye of the illegally kept Gibbon on the street.
The Macaque pacing constantly around his cage.
The deep and longing stares from the eyes of Ambon, Molly and Wati who begged me to give them relief from their prisons.
The dedication I witnessed from all of the COP team who work so tirelessly towards their goal to protect the rainforests, and who take action towards that goal every single day.
These memories are with me forever, and I cannot ignore them. I will not ignore them.
If you would like to help, there is so much you can do, no matter how much time or money you have. Even by sharing the blog and helping to raise awareness, you are making a difference.
Please subscribe to our blog so we can keep you informed of how you can help. If you would like to become an Orangu-friend, then send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how much time you can volunteer.
Even a few minutes a day can make a huge difference, so please get in touch.