Leif Cocks is blunt: we’ve got about ten years to save our closest relatives, the orangutans, and then that’s it.
Depressing, yes, but Leif, 56 remains optimistic.
“It can be done!” Leif, who this year won an Order of Australia for conservation of endangered animals, tells The Starfish.
The former Perth Zoo keeper now devotes his life to protecting those orangutans, tigers and elephants struggling to survive the dwindling jungle in Borneo and Sumatra.
As the land continues to be cleared at an alarming rate, the lush jungle replaced by palm plantations, Leif is doing all he can to save our closest relative from extinction, through the non-profit organisation he founded, The Orangutan Project.
Formed after he left the zoo (Leif memorably made headlines when he released Sumatran orang-utans bred at Perth Zoo into the wild), the organisation has identified eight key forest ecosystems which it needs to save the animals.
“We are reclaiming and replenishing plots of land which have been logged, planting trees and housing animals there,” he explains.
Caring for the local communities is an important part of his work.
“We work with them, plus educate and feed their children, helping the communities to become self sufficient with ventures like honey production and planting vanilla.”
Tragically, Sumatra has lost at least half of its forest since 1985, replaced by palm oil and paper plantations, forcing the orang-utans and other creatures to relocate to ever diminishing pockets of land.
Though there are a few national parks in Indonesia, “mostly they’re in the highlands which is not suitable for these animals. They need the lowland; the nutrients run downhill so it’s more fertile, where the wildlife can live.”
Donating just $20 a month enables the Orangutan Project to secure and protect four hectares of rain forest, providing valuable habitat for the endangered animals.
“Sadly, due to the current pandemic, quite a few of our sponsors have had to withdraw,” Leif explains.
“In all, we need about $20 million dollars a year for the next ten years. At the moment, we’re getting three or four million a year. So we need four or five times this amount.”
And the clock is ticking..
“It’s no coincidence that the climate scientists are all saying the next ten years is crucial for the planet. The cheapest and most effective way of keeping the planet cool is to keep these forests there!” he sighs.
There are about 60,000 Borneo orangutans remaining on the planet, 14,000 Sumatra orangutans – “and there’s another type of orangutan, the Tapanuli, and there are only about 800 of them left in the world,” he says softly.
Currently, their land is under grave threat, with the Indonesian firm owned by British company Jardine Matheson, keen to develop a gold mine in the precious Batang Toru Ecosystem, actively destroying the forest. The company had earlier offered assurances that the orangutans would remain safe but satellite footage shows that au contraire, logging of their habitat is in full swing.
There’s global petition to try to persuade the company to halt its work. Here’s the link:
Corporations, it seems, are masters at “greenwashing,” persuading the public that they are environmentally concerned when their actions speak otherwise, says Leif.
Michelin owns several rubber plantations near forest his organisation has leased to save animals.
“We asked them if they would please leave a corridor for elephants to use. So they did – but they also moved the villagers on the land there so now there are regular clashes between the elephants and the villagers, regular deaths of both.”
Despite all the setbacks, Leif and co-workers won’t lose their fighting spirit.
Thanks to supporters from Australia and around the world, The Orangutan Project has kicked some important goals.
But funnily, Leif says it’s the average, “middle class” donors who are his biggest supporters, not the ultra-wealthy.
Leif doesn’t find this surprising though. “Generally the most wealthy are also the people who deny climate change exists. They’re not bad people, but it’s just too much for them to think that the way they make their money could be hurting the planet. They can’t get their heads around that fact so it’s better just to attack the people speaking up about it.”
Whereas the less wealthy people, he says, who don’t tend to be making their money out of harming the planet, are more inclined to want to support The Orangutan Project.
The group works with other like-minded organisations, helping to rescue injured elephants, relocate threatened tigers, tending to orphaned baby orangutans whose mothers have been bludgeoned to death, and employing local rangers and helpers.
Leif’s lecture was sobering, but enlightening. There is still hope for these magnificent jungle creatures.
We just can’t afford to look away.
To find out more, or learn how you can help Leif save these precious creatures, visit https://www.orangutan.org.au