Orangutan conservation in Indonesia: Raw Wildlife Encounters let tourists help

Many people would like to contribute in some way to the places they visit. But rolling up their sleeves and building schools and other voluntourism experiences may not be for them, for whatever reasons.

That's where the likes of Raw Wildlife Encounters (RAW) comes in. The company started in 2009 by now 34-year-old Melburnian Jessica McKelson. RAW runs tours where  travellers can encounter orangutans and learn about them, with a sizeable portion of the cost of their holiday going directly to helping conservation efforts.

So far, $500,000 of that has gone towards Sumatran orangutan conservation and the tours contributed more than $1 million into the local Sumatran community ecotourism programs. "It's a great revenue for local people, so that they don't rely on damaging their natural resources for money, but can help protect these resources," says McKelson.

"I also have developed very close and key relations with our local guides. I've spent time training them how to speak English and more importantly worked with them so that they understand the broader issue of habitat protection and orangutans."

She is quick to point out that as hard as she's working on that, for tour participants, "it is a holiday."

And a special one, at that. "Clients feel they have been so moved by the experience – witnessing a wild orangutan, bathing an elephant, waking up to the sound of the rainforest, camping behind a nine-metre waterfall in a remote forest cave. The journey is healing and almost a natural therapy session for the week."

McKelson says, at the beginning the customer base was mostly animal lovers, but not it's extended to family groups and organised groups, and the biggest growth area is in solo women travellers, aged 45 to 65.

RAW is growing in other countries, such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Borneo (Malaysia) and on the African continent. In 2016, it expands into Mongolia. "In these other destinations, our aim is to support local community travel programs, which are not owned by RAW but are sold by RAW. We believe in grass-root community ecotourism and country-owned travel programs which promote sustainable travel within all destinations."

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