Jess McKelson, 30, Yarraville, Vic
A pair of big, brown eyes looked up at me and a hand reached for my face. Deciding I wasn't a threat, the little orphan called Bonito smiled. As he inquisitively ran his fingers through my hair, he captured my heart forever. I was at an Indonesian rescue centre where all of the orphans sported tufts of orange hair.
You see, Bonito and his friends were orangutans - and, captivated by their charm, I decided to devote my life to protecting their future.I'd always been passionate about animals. As a schoolgirl, while my friends were playing with dolls, I would spend my holidays volunteering at wildlife centres until I was accepted into a traineeship at Melbourne Zoo.
For me, it was even better than winning the lottery! I got to do everything, from feeding the animals to cleaning out their enclosures. Then a keeper told me how orangutans were facing extinction. Their natural rainforest habitat was being cleared for palm oil plantations - which provide ingredients used in certain food products and cosmetics.
I was horrified. I need to do something, I told myself. So I began fundraising for conservation charities. When the opportunity arose for me to see their work, I jumped at the chance. I had never been overseas before, and as the plane passed over the forests of Borneo I marvelled at the lush beauty.
'Don't be fooled,' said Fleur, a senior keeper accompanying me. 'That's not rainforest. You are looking at rows and rows of palms.' I couldn't believe it. They stretched for as far as I could see. Seeing how much of the orangutans' habitat had been wiped out left me reeling.
The rescue centre - on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi - was nestled in a corner of the forest. It was there I met Bonito for the first time. His hands curled round mine and a rush of love that I'd never felt before flooded through me.
A rescue worker told me how Bonito had been saved from an illegal animal trader who supplied pets to unlawful zoos.'It's not just the orangutans' food being destroyed,' she told me. 'They're also often killed by plantation workers who view them as a pest. The adult mothers are frequently murdered so the babies can be sold as pets,' she continued.
Those tales of tragedy woke a passion inside me and I vowed that trip would be the first of many. It was. Each year I visited orangutan projects in Indonesia.As I have experience working with primates in captivity, on one trip I taught the centre staff how to refurbish the cages with ropes and tyres to help keep the animals stimulated.
On another trip the orphanage nursery was full, so I had to take a newly-rescued toddler for the night. The babies usually sleep in a washing basket with a tiny doona, but this tot, called Iit, clung to me. 'It's okay,' I said softly, trying to soothe her. But every time I tried to put her to bed, she refused to let go. I spent the night on the couch with her dozing in my arms.
In the wild, youngsters stay with their mums until the age of nine. When they're orphaned it's the staff at the rehabilitation centres who take on that role, bottle-feeding them through the night and changing their nappies. Watching them rush to the aid of babies who woke screaming for comfort made me realise how many human characteristics the orphans share.
When they are ready to learn, the baby orangutans leave the nursery and head to a special centre where staff teach them how to climb trees, build nests, and which foods are safe to eat. When I visited one, it was like taking a trip to primate primary school! Finally, after learning all their life skills, the orangutans are released back into the wild.
Some orangutans have touched me profoundly. One orphan, Kesi, lost her hand when the mother she was clinging to was hacked to death by a palm oil plantation worker. Deeply traumatised, she was very quiet at the rescue centre. I struggled to hold back tears as I watched her eating a piece of fruit all on her own. But when I went back a year later, I was amazed to see Kesi socialising with the other orangutans. She'd even learnt to climb a tree with one hand!
The touching scene affected me so much that back home, with the support of my husband David, 34, I started my own eco-travel agency called Raw Wildlife Encounters. I also got involved with a project called Earth 4 Orangutans. The aim is to create an education sanctuary for animals that can't be released.
If things don't change soon, orangutans could be extinct within my lifetime. But we can do something to help. Whether it's adopting an orangutan to help cover the cost of its care or lobbying the government to import sustainable palm oil, there are many ways to get involved. It takes just one look into those beautiful brown eyes to know it's worth the fight.
ADOPT AN ORPHAN
- Bunga was kept as a pet in a cage. At first she was cautious of people, but after making friends with other orangutans, she's thrived.
- Rahayu battled from the brink of death after suffering from malaria. Vets feared she was blind, but the brave bub is now climbing trees and finding food her keepers have hidden for her.
- Jarot was confiscated from a villager with injuries on his head. A sensitive soul, Jarot often cries, especially when his toys are taken by other orphans.
- Monti was rescued from a family. She needed round-the-clock care. Two years on, she's eager to make friends with the new volunteers.
- To adopt or find out more about The Orangutan Project, go to www.orangutan.org.au.
- Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of their DNA.
- When extended, orangutans' arms are longer than their bodies.
- Smacking their lips together is a sign an orangutan is annoyed.