Leif Cocks is on a mission to save the orangutan. He’s worked hands-on with and for orangutans for more than 25 years, including running one of the most successful breeding colonies in the world. He’s the founder and president of The Orangutan Project, coordinates orangutan rescues and has been a key player in developing conservation plans for their survival.
If you think that’s a full-time job, how about adding roles like being on the Australasian Species Management Program Committee, Chair of the World Aquarium and Zoo Association, President of Wildlife Asia and author of Orangutans and their Battle for Survival to the mix?
Leif tells me about his incredible support base here and abroad, saying The Orangutan Project has supporters in every state of Australia, staff in Indonesia and new chapters launching in New Zealand and Canada.
And then he tells me that he’s coming to the Gold Coast this weekend for a fundraising event at the Greenhouse Factory in Kirra.
“It’s an event put on by volunteers at the Gold Coast,” he said. “We have a great bunch of people there.”
The event will raise money for the organisation’s rescue centre in West Kalimantan.
“They specifically wanted to do something to help us fund the rescue centre in West Kalimantan,” Leif said. The rescue centre physically rescues baby orangutans that have been orphaned and then helps them develop the skills they need to be reintroduced back into their habitat.
“Orangutans are losing habitat and being slaughtered in the process,” Leif said. “With that, one in six infants will survive when their mother has been killed. So we have a rescue unit that goes and tries to rescue as many as possible.”
“If it’s an adult – the team goes and puts it in some forest that is intact. If it’s a baby, where the mother has been killed, it simply won’t survive. So it goes to the rescue centre, is treated for disease and trauma and learns the forest skills to help it survive.”
I asked Leif if it was easy to pinpoint the main threat to orangutans and he doesn’t hesitate. “There’s only one reason,” he said. “Multinationals raping Indonesia for short-term profits.”
“They’re taking the trees worth millions of dollars and making a lot of money from that. Once the trees are gone they’ll burn the remaining scrub and they’ll put on whatever crop they can – they’re looking at short-term profit. At the moment it’s palm oil – after three years you get a really good crop – of course it’s unsustainable. They don’t care, they’re there to make the maximum money as soon as possible. But if palm oil disappears they’ll plant coconuts or sugar palm or something else or just make the money from the timber.”
“This is all illegal – it’s all against Indonesian law. These companies bribe Indonesian officials to take the forest which is against Indonesian law.”
The approach of The Orangutan Project seems action-oriented and the impacts are obvious – they’re saving baby orangutans. But when I dig a little further it becomes obvious that this is a complex and expensive process. It also runs a lot deeper than rescuing the animals themselves.
“We support local communities to fund their legal cases against big businesses to protect the forest,” Leif said, as he started to list the activities he’s coordinating.
“We have a joint company where we lease ex-logging concessions to stop it being converted to permanent agriculture. We have wildlife protection units: once the land is legally protected to make sure that no illegal activities occur.”
“And of course we have the rescue and rehabilitation program.”
“The main game is stopping the forest from disappearing through legal action, which requires public pressure as well,” Leif said.
Which brings us to the event in question. Mounting legal actions and supporting local communities to stand up for their rights is a costly business. While The Orangutan Project has an army of passionate people supporting its work, what they need most of all is cash.
Leif said they’re hoping to raise a few thousand dollars at the fundraiser on the weekend. But they much more than that.
“The problem is big. We need millions. For every bit of money we get we can enact real, genuine conservation on the ground and rescue real orangutans from death. Every dollar counts,” Leif said.
It’s one of the reasons the organisation is encouraging people to support them on a regular basis, with small donations over a long period of time.
“We consider ourselves a small organisation, but we are the major funder of bona fide orangutan projects on the ground. We have the major burden of trying to find the money somehow to keep everything going,” Leif said. “The monthly giving program is the most valuable thing for us – because what we need is long term sustainable income to keep us going.”
Leif said that small donations of $15 to $20 a month add up to ensure the organisation has regular income coming in, and can plan ahead for investments in staff on the ground.
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The Orangutan Project’s fundraising event Jungle Appeal takes place this Sunday 3 May at Greenhouse Factory, Kirra. Tickets are $49 and can be purchase instore, online or by contacting Jenny on 0403 528 539.
You can become a monthly donor to The Orangutan Project by visiting orangutan.org.au and clicking on the donate button.