Richard Zimmerman, Executive Director of Orangutan Outreach, shares his passion for this incredible great ape with us.
1. Was wildlife something that was important to you growing up and when did it first come on your radar?
I actually spent most of my childhood in Southern California– about as far removed from ‘wildlife’ as possible. Tropical forests were something to be viewed on television or in the pages of National Geographic. ‘Wildlife’ meant coyotes and rattlesnakes– creatures that had been pushed beyond the barriers of our suburban sprawl, their occasional, uninvited appearance met with brute force by the humans charged with eradicating them. I was actually much older when I finally gained a true appreciation for wildlife.
2. Why was it orangutans that became your passion over any other creature?
I’ve always felt orangutans were special creatures. My love for them is unconditional. Strangely enough I don’t know why this is, but it goes back to when I was very young. There’s just something about them… When I look in their eyes and watch them interact with one another…. Even when they are just sitting still, I’m spellbound. I always have been.
I believe orangutans should have the right to live free of fear, free of danger, free of human encroachment into their forest home.
They are not capable of defending themselves against humans, and in any violent encounter, the orangutan ultimately loses. This is why they need to be protected and why I do what I do. It is a question of Rights and Justice.
When I was young I actually didn’t see orangutans as ‘wildlife’. I should clarify that. I had only seen captive orangutans– either in cages or zoo enclosures, or (far worse) in movies, or being forced to entertain tourists at places like Universal Studios. The orangutans I was familiar with as a boy were far thus removed from any idyllic life in a far-off forest paradise (real or imagined). For me, orangutans were fellow beings who were suffering abuse at the hands of humans for no fault of their own. They were being forced to perform, to act, to entertain. The point I’m driving at is that while there is clearly a need to protect wildlife & biodiversity and preserving ecosystems, for me there is an additional element to the mix. Orangutan conservation is also a matter of dignity and respect for (fellow) sentient, conscious beings. These are innocent creatures who have been objectified by man and who have often been forced to serve humans in some capacity or perish. For me this is not acceptable. Orangutans are not objects– and they should not be treated as objects. They are individuals– and every individual matters. I cringe when I hear about private owners breeding them… pulling babies from mothers so they can be used to entertain humans. This is NOT acceptable. It is an affront to everything I believe in.
3. When was the first time you saw a wild orangutan?
I had never actually seen a truly wild orangutan until my recent trip to Sabangau. Over the years I’ve seen literally hundreds of orangutans in zoos, sanctuaries and care centers, but it took me all this time to finally get a sustained, close look at an orangutan in the wild. I will never forget that first moment– trudging through the swampy peat to where the OuTrop research team sat patiently staring into the canopy. When I looked up and saw a female orangutan named Indy laying in her nest– or rather, her arm and leg dangling from the rim of her nest, my heart actually leapt. Her beautiful baby Icarus was swinging around her like a little red satellite– in perpetual rhythmic motion, always within range of his mother’s long arm. It was truly breathtaking. I get goose bumps just writing about it….
4. How did you come to set up Orangutan Outreach, and what has been the story of its journey and yours?
I’ve loved orangutans since I was a child, but I didn’t pursue this love academically or professionally. I worked instead in education and IT for many years. Nevertheless, no matter what I was doing and wherever I was in my life, orangutans always remained in my thoughts. They always had an uncanny way of entering my thoughts… and sneaking into lesson plans.
Around 10 years ago– while I was working in communications at UNICEF in New York– I had my ‘orangutan awakening’, as I like to call it. I often had time on my hands between assignments and I used this time to educate myself about the situation facing orangutans in the wild. I learned about the expansion of oil palm plantations, the burning of the forests, the deaths, the care centers, rescues, rehabilitation…. As I began to comprehend just how horrific things were in Borneo and Sumatra I made the decision to do something to help them. I didn’t have much money, so I offered what I could– my web skills and my love– to orangutan conservation organizations.
I realized at that point that it was time for me to finally see orangutans in the forest with my own eyes, so when I had time off from work, my wife and I took a trip to Indonesia and visited several orangutan sites. It was Lone Droscher Nielsen, founder of BOS Nyaru Menteng, whose charisma and dedication made the biggest impression on me. This was nearly ten years ago– at a time when rescued babies were being brought to the center almost on a daily basis. The numbers were swelling beyond capacity and it would be several years before BOS would establish their orangutan release program. At that time, there was no foreseeable outlet for all the orangutans being cared for at Nyaru Menteng. To make matters worse, they were running dangerously low on funs… The situation was absolutely tragic. I can’t explain in words how I felt seeing so many traumatized orphans and displaced adult orangutans stuck in cages, squealing and kiss-squeaking, slowly losing hope. Staring into their mesmerizing eyes drove me mad. I’m not exaggerating. I couldn’t sleep. When I closed my eyes I saw them reaching out from their cages, desperately pleading for help…. I knew I needed to do more to help them.
I returned home and continued where I’d left off– helping other organizations while working full time at UNICEF. Time flew by…. and my wife and I went back to Indonesia a year later to see more and try to better understand the situation. When I returned home this second time I decided I needed to try something new. The big buzzword at UNICEF at the time was ‘outreach’ and I kept saying to myself– THAT is exactly what the orangutans need– ‘OUTREACH’. I was still haunted by the images of their long skinny arms reaching out from the rows and rows of cages, so it all began to make sense. I created the non-profit Orangutan Outreach from the ground up, working closely with Michelle Desilets, who at the time was running BOS UK and now runs Orangutan Land Trust. I set up a new website at RedApes.org. This was back in 2007 and Orangutan Outreach grew quickly thanks to the exposure from Animal Planet’s Orangutan Island. We started off fundraising directly for BOS Nyaru Menteng, but have since expanded to help IAR develop a new rescue center in Ketapang. We also now support SOCP in Sumatra, where Ian Singleton and his team are building a new sanctuary in Medan called Orangutan Haven. We also support COP, OIC, JAAN, OURF and a few other projects and groups in the field– like OuTrop!
The goal of Orangutan Outreach is to eventually be able to support all orangutan-related groups and activities in Borneo, Sumatra and beyond. Our role is to empower our partners to rescue, care for and protect orangutans whatever the costs. The ultimate goal, of course, is to see as many orangutans as possible released into safe, secure forests. Orangutans who are unable to be released will need permanent sanctuary care so they can live out their lives in comfort with dignity and respect. This is now being addressed in Sumatra by SOCP. The situation has yet to be adequately addressed in Borneo, but we’re working on it….
5. What have been some of your most proud moments over your career so far?
There have been many proud moments. There are a few obvious ones like being able to help with a few hands-on rescues, but that’s not my strength. The rescue teams at IAR, COP, BOS and OIC are the real heroes in this department. What I excel at is working on the outside– helping support the projects in the field. Orangutan Outreach has been created essentially as a portal for people everywhere to learn more about orangutans and help them. I’m really proud of having been able to grow it to where it is today. THIS is what makes me proud– knowing that I didn’t just sit on my ass ‘wishing I had done this’ or ‘regretting that I had not done that’– but instead I did it– and I continue to do it. This makes me proud.
Orangutan Outreach has been able to raise a lot of funds over the years– and we distribute at least 90% of our revenue back to the projects. I know that I’m making a difference in the lives of the orangutans.
But while funds are CRITICALLY important, there’s more to it than just fundraising. Developing relationships with donors and fellow orangutan lovers has affected me profoundly. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know so many people who are doing such phenomenal work to protect the orangutans. Seeing our young supporters and Youth Ambassadors grow up and ‘keep the faith’ has been very inspiring. I was once that kid who wrote a letter to the baby gorilla at the LA Zoo. (I even got a response from the keeper!) Now I receive those types of letters and emails from kids…. This is an honor and a privilege which must be handled with care and gratitude. I still do my best to personally answer every email that comes to Orangutan Outreach!
Orangutan Outreach has a dedicated network of wonderful supporters & volunteers around the world and I’m immensely proud and grateful to have been able to work with so many people to make a real difference in the lives of so many orangutans. Bringing people together on Facebook has been interesting, to say the least. Having created a space where people can communicate– and sometimes scream and rant and yell!– serves an important role in raising awareness of the plight to save the orangutans.
6. You recently visited Indonesia, including OuTrop’s project. Can you tell us a little bit about this trip and what it means to you to be able to see these creatures in their natural environment?
My trips to Indonesia are generally fast-paced and exhausting. With so many sites to visit and partners to meet, I am constantly on the move. This was my second trip to OuTrop’s research station and our group was fortunate to be able to stay overnight and wake up early to go out into the forest. I cannot overstate what a privilege it was to be able to wake up in the darkness and walk into the forest with the OuTrop team. The light drizzle, the sounds, the smells of the forest…. There was such a barrage of emotions as we strolled down the rickety boardwalks. Sensory overload in a good way. We spent a few minutes watching a family of gibbons. I was completely awestruck watching their graceful treetop ballet… Even more than the visual, it was the sounds– hearing them call out– that impacted me. I’ve heard gibbons in zoos and fallen asleep countless nights to digitized jungle sounds, so to finally hear them in the wild was truly glorious. But little did I know that the best was yet to come a few hours later we went back out and got our first glimpse of Indy and her baby boy Icarus. As I mentioned earlier, this was without question one of the greatest experiences of my life.
7. Orangutans and the rainforests they rely on face a growing number of threats. What do you think the future looks like for them and what are some of the most promising signs you see that we can save them? What is the role of organizations like OO and OuTrop moving forwards?
The future for orangutans and their forest home does not look good. Human greed is on pace to wipe out the forests of Borneo and Sumatra and convert the land into oil palm plantations. Left unchecked, the timber, palm oil and mining industries will try to take it all. Our job as conservationists is to make sure this does not happen.
I try not to think about all the orangutans who have been murdered as their forests have been decimated and the land converted to oil palm plantations… We can only work to protect those who are still alive– in the wild and in the care centers. It is too late to save the millions of hectares of forest that have already been destroyed by the palm oil companies, so we must now do everything we can to prevent them from gaining access to the remaining forests. As concessions become available conservationists must have the capacity and funding to acquire, protect and restore them. Forests such as Batikap– which is being used by BOS Nyaru Menteng as a release site– must be protected at all costs. New concessions such as Katingan– which OuTrop has helped survey– can serve as shining examples of how to ‘take back’ forests.
Orangutan Outreach is one voice among many. While our focus is obviously orangutans, we also need to speak out for the elephants, the rhinos, the tigers… and all the other creatures of the rainforest. It is by working with partners– not only fellow orangutan conservation organizations, but all environmental and human rights groups that share our vision– that we can make a difference.
Growing awareness of the problems of palm oil expansion has jumped significantly over the past few years. There has been substantial progress with NGOs large and small working together to raise public attention on social media and turning this awareness into action on the ground. WRI has released its new Forest Watch software so we can watch the forests in real time– and make sure they’re still there when we click refresh. RAN, Greenpeace and UCS have been campaigning hard over the past few year and many powerful companies have pledged to not buy their palm oil from companies destroying the forests. But talk is cheap. Now comes the hard part. We must do everything in our power to ensure the promises and pledges are enforced. Law enforcement is the key. Arresting and prosecuting the criminals who are burning forests, planting oil palms illegally inside designated forests, poaching the wildlife and selling it on the black market…. Without law enforcement nothing matters… Crime will continue to pay.
Protecting peat swamps is essential to reducing carbon emissions in a world that is hurtling toward catastrophic climate devastation. OuTrop, simply by being present in the Sabangau peat forest has kept it standing. Without OuTrop the forest would probably be gone– mowed down and converted into a giant oil palm plantation straddling the rivers on either side… every creature dead, including Indy and Icarus.
OuTrop serves a critically important function– not only for new research, but also as a window into this magical world of the rainforest– so that young people living in suburbs on the opposite side of the earth can get a glimpse into the forest and have the opportunity to take that trip and see the forest with their own eyes instead of just on their iPad.