Monday 19 September 2011

Jessica McKelson

Jessica! What a woman, what a powerhouse!

It seemed as if I already had known Jess for years when I met her for the first time. I heard of her when Michelle, one of the other ‘Incredible Ladies’ and director of Orangutan Land Trust - OLT, posted on Twitter: ‘I can recommend this travel company’. When I opened the link tears shot into my eyes: A trip to Sumatra to see elephants and orangutans… all I ever had wished for, on one little page right in front of me. This was too good to be true.

I sent an email to enquire for more information and got a wonderfully personal email back. We clicked! Many emails and Facebook messages later we eventually met in Medan, Sumatra. During the two weeks that followed I heard incredible stories of how, at age 29, this travel company became the culmination point of her career. From an early age Jess was a woman who sees a need and just ‘does’. To her, fears and worries are there to be overcome. What an example and what an inspiration!

A passion for wildlife

Her passion had always been animals and native wildlife. At a young age she volunteered for five year to a private Native Wildlife Park where she gained experience as a foster carer, rehabilitating Native Fauna to release back into the wild. After completion of one year in the Natural Resource Management Course, she gained employment as a zookeeper at Victoria’s Open Range Zoo, then moved on to Perth Zoo, and currently she is employed at Melbourne Zoo as a Senior Zookeeper. Since 2000 Jess has been working there with a range of exotic and native fauna, until she found her niche working with primates.

Sometimes one just has to be in the right place at the right time: Two years after she started her employment with Melbourne Zoo she did her first trip to Indonesia… and instead of finding dense cover of rainforest where the canopy of the trees is hiding the wonders of the jungle below, she saw palm oil plantations; loads of them. As a matter of fact, hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest converted to palm oil plantations. It left her with a deep gut feeling of horror. What was going on and how could we be so ignorant to not see the damage done to one of the most beautiful places on the planet? And not just beautiful… those rainforests are the lungs of the world we live in… a damage of this size and the speed with which it progresses was just incomprehensible.

A life-changing trip

This trip would become a life changing experience to her. When she started her employment with Melbourne Zoo she did not expect to work with orangutans and nor did she expect to travel to Indonesia to pursue a career in becoming an active ambassador to protect our wild cousins and their rainforest home. This is her personal account about Indonesia, the rainforest and orangutans:

Why Indonesia? The world has many wild places. But the forests of Indonesia have always excited me. Home of four major species which act as ambassadors to the forests, the Sumatran tiger, orangutan, elephant and rhino, it is one of the most bio diverse regions on the planet and one of the most culturally diverse places to visit.

Indonesia, however also has a rapidly growing industrialising economy, with a large, growing population, putting strain on its resources and the poor. In a wildlife conservation context, there are important differences between South East Asia and ‘western countries’; i.e. the former faces greater population pressures, lower standards of living, and weaker government capacity and regulation. These contribute to significant and complex conservation challenges.  And it is Indonesia where one will find some of the world’s best environmental non-government organisations and professional working on a broad range of conservation programs. Needless to mention that I also chose Indonesia as it is the home of the orangutan.

When I got there for the first time, I saw the damage, and most of that immense damage occurred to a species so close to us, that shares 97% DNA to us humans - the famous orangutan. Then I heard how they came to end up in rehabilitation centres, and I witnessed the damage and the suffering. I was actively involved in rescue missions and I saw their grim future. Since then I have not turned my back on the significant issues that threaten the remainder of wild Borneo, but have become inspired to take part in the urgent action needed to save the orangutan species in Borneo and Sumatra.

The Orangutan Crisis is why I became involved as a volunteer for the ‘Borneo Orangutan Survival’ (BOS) Australia, from 2002 - 2007. I spent a majority of my own time filling the role as ‘Fundraising and Merchandise Coordinator’ for BOS Australia, which entails organizing and implementing fundraising activities and managing merchandise orders. 

After returning to Australia things fell into place. Jess applied to the ‘International Specialised Skills Institute’ and was awarded the youngest fellowship in Australia where the Pratt Foundation was her sponsor. The aim of the fellowship was to study and gain first-hand information on conservation programs and the methods and practices involved for long-term successful outcomes, to acquire practical skills and techniques used in project design and management, and to then apply the knowledge and skills in Australian zoos to assist them to improve their capacity to support conservation programs.

Prior to receiving this fellowship Jess had the opportunity to meet one of her childhood idols, Dr Jane Goodall, at the orangutan sanctuary. After talking about the programs around chimpanzees Jane had developed during her lifetime, Jess asked for her opinion about working in the conservation industry. She was awarded with the advice to harness her enthusiasm and motivation and direct these energies into Indonesia. This was the last push needed to gain the confidence and to channel all her efforts into this direction.

The Future
Jess is now focusing her efforts into three main areas, which in a way support and influence each other:

Orangutan Conservation

Jess keeps visiting Nyaru Menteng, the world’s largest primate rescue centre, to help develop programs to enrich the lives of orphan orangutans and to support their rehabilitation. Nyaru Menteng is the center which was founded by Michelle and Lone Droscher-Nielson and it is the project via which these three fantastic women are linked. Jess' work as the 'Works Project Manager' includes:
  • A Works program, where she facilitated an Australian welder and electrician to travel to Nyaru Menteng and help train some of the local employees with skills they would not have received otherwise.
  • Assisted in helping expand and develop the ‘Environmental Enrichment’ program for the orangutans so they are mentally and physically stimulated within their captive environment until they are released. 
  • Helped facilitate three local technicians to come to Australia and work with the orangutans at Melbourne Zoo in a ‘Capacity Building Program’.
  • Participated in daily operations including rescue and intensive care of orangutans that come into the centre.
At SOCP: Jess, Ian and Gober a blind mum of twin babies

More recently she started supporting the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme – SOCP, led by Ian Singleton, in their activities to re-introduce orphans back into the wild and to provide a permanent home for orangutans who cannot be rehabilitated due to major injuries, like blindness through airgun bullets (Full story of the two blind Orangutan parents of twins).

Elephant Conservation

The Sumatran elephant is critically endangered and the Sumatran Elephant Conservation Program of the Conservation Response Unit (CRU) is a project that has been with Jess since her beginnings at Melbourne Zoo. It is a programme in which she is actively involved by spending time working alongside ex-illegal loggers to help protect and save the Sumatran wild elephants natural habitat, while finding ways to give captive elephants the best live possible. She works on broad-scale habitat conservation, as this is the home of the Sumatran orangutan as well. She works closely with a local community living on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park and has developed a number of programs to assist in its protection. Her main concern is to create win-win situations for all parties involved. For this reason she built the Raw Wildlife Encounters eco travel agency, employing the elephants in a way that is close to their natural behaviour, giving the local population a sustainable income while protecting the rainforest habitat through education and raising awareness. The programs include:

  • Development of 1ha ‘Elephant Conservation Garden’ as an educational resource on sustainable and organic farming methods.
  • Redeveloping the eco-tourism activities with the CRU, like elephant patrols into the Gunung Leuser National Park.
  • Developing a ‘Forest Ranger Training Program’ together with Deakin University representatives, which included training local community members in GPS and data collection skills.
  • Initiating a ‘Conservation Teachers Training Workshop’, training 14 local teachers and headmasters a conservation program, which can be delivered to their schools.
  • Facilitating four elephant mahouts to come to Australia and work with the keepers at Melbourne Zoos elephant program in a ‘Capacity Building Program’.
  • Teaching English to the mahouts and forest rangers.

Raw Wildlife Encounters

The commitment to helping conserve local communities and their natural environments has changed her life. Her love and passion for orangutan conservation is helping to conserve the entire ecosystem of the region, including the people who live there. Working alongside key conservation leaders and communities, Jess realised that one more, big leap would be necessary to sustain those projects for the future: She would build her own eco-travel company, Raw Wildlife Encounters (RWE). And this company would incorporate all her believes and conservation values. She would prove that strong ethical principles and ecological ideals are a way to economical success, allowing her to support those programs.

In 2008 she took the leap and at the age of 26 she founded RWE while still working full time as a zookeeper, supervising the Primate Collection at Melbourne Zoo. She says:
‘The least thing I needed was a hobby as a business owner and manager, but I am so grateful that I took that step. Only a year later, at age 27, I became the director of this amazing eco-travel agency. My aim is to deliver high-quality travel encounters that provide our guests with life-changing experiences. So many of our guests have given me positive feedback about how much their travel encounters have impacted their lives. Consequently, I now have a whole support network believing in the work of RWE, and that encourages me more than ever. Even more importantly, it is so gratifying to know that our supporters can come with us on tours to see where their money goes.’

And the scheme is spreading! The work she started in the Tangkahan area is now being picked up by other communities living at the margins of Gunung Leseur National Park. She seeded a grain and made it thrive through passion, commitment, persistence and a good deal of guts. What an example and what an inspiration! What an Incredible Lady!

The Raw Conservation Commitment


  1. Always ensure you choose a method that is proven to remove skin tags without causing adverse effects and scarring.
    Cholera is an acute infection of the small intestine, and it can be life-threatening.
    Chocolate and junk foods are often blamed for the
    cause of acne.

    Feel free to surf to my web site; Skin tag remover

  2. I always emailed this webpage post page to all my friends, as if like to read it after that my contacts will too.

    Also visit my web blog;

  3. whoah this blog is wonderful i love reading your posts.

    Stay up the great work! You know, lots of people are searching around for this info, you could aid them greatly.

    Feel free to surf to my webpage - book of ra kostenlos spielen deutsch

  4. For newest information you have to pay a visit world-wide-web and on world-wide-web
    I found this web site as a most excellent website for latest updates.

    Have a look at my webpage;


When posting you will be asked to type a word verification. This is to prevent automated systems from adding comments to the blog, since it takes a human being to read the word and pass this step.
Thank you for your understanding!