World-renowned orangutan expert Leif Cocks boasts a career working with orangutans that spans almost 30 years. He explains how he sustains his passion.
This article was first published in the Changemaker section of Pro Bono News.
Leif Cocks is a passionate campaigner for orangutans and has been the president of The Orangutan Project since its inception in 1998. Cocks is this week’s Changemaker.
The Orangutan Project was formed with a key mission; to ensure that endangered wild orangutan species would be protected against extinction, and would continue to live in secure populations for generations to come.
Today, The Orangutan Project is a successful not-for-profit organisation that supports a wide range of critical projects that address the holistic problem facing remaining fragmented orangutan populations – including fighting deforestation and habitat loss at the highest level.
In this week’s Changemaker, founder and president, Cocks, who also boasts several academic qualifications, including a Masters of Science and is the author of Orangutans and their Battle for Survival, talks about establishing the most successful breeding colony of orangutans in the world, how he came to be a character witness for an orangutan in court and why orangutans should be considered as persons.
Today you are recognised as a world-renowned orangutan expert, how did you start out?
I started out many years ago when I started working with the orangutans at Perth Zoo, I was a keeper for many years, raising and looking after them. And then obviously the discovery once you are working with these beings is that they are persons. They are not animals as such, they are persons which have been held in captivity against their will and they deserve the same rights as humans, even though they are not our species. Then obviously the next realisation is that due to senseless greed they have been driven to extinction and thousands have been slaughtered a year and so that moved me to start The Orangutan Project, with the vision that one day all orangutans would live free in the wild, in secure habitat, in viable populations.
Last year you made headlines after you testified before an Argentinian court that a 30-year-old orangutan from Buenos Aires Zoo was a person. How did you come to be a involved?
One of the lawyers for the case who was representing Sandra [the orangutan] in the Argentine court contacted me to testify as an expert witness because obviously for maybe 30 years now, I have been working with orangutans. But also I did my masters research on the factors affecting the wellbeing and longevity of orangutans in captivity, so I was seen to be probably in a unique position not only to know about and understand orangutans as sentient beings but also understand what factors most affect them and destroy their quality of life while held in captivity.
What does a typical day for you involve?
I guess the best answer for that is there is no typical day. My philosophy is that I don’t work with orangutans I work for orangutans. We have to do the most effective thing possible to secure their survival, so that ranges from working directly with them, working directly for their welfare, being part of companies and foundations, that we are leasing the land and protecting the forest with our wildlife protection units, to managing and overseeing our donor’s money to ensure it is effectively spent on the ground in the most efficient way possible, to fundraising and getting the message out there, because although relatively in the world economy we only need a small amount of money to save them from extinction we are still far from getting that.
How does The Orangutan Project make a difference to local communities?
We make a great difference to local communities because this is not wildlife versus people or the environment versus the economy, the situation is a few greedy people are raping Indonesia and extracting the money overseas and leaving the environment of Indonesia destroyed. So they pass on the true cost of production onto the powerless and make huge profits, so when we save the forest, we allow the Indigenous communities to prosper and live, because they use the forest to make their living by extracting non-forest products, by protecting the forest we save the ecosystem services which the forest creates, for example once they remove the forest you have floods and droughts, not a continuous water supply, you have extremes in temperature and droughts from the fact that rainforest creates a lot of the rain and so we provided the agricultural services which keep the poor communities prosperous and by securing the land and protecting it, we are preventing them from being displaced by large multinationals who do not recognise that they have any rights, especially to the land, when such large profits are available.
In 2006 you were involved in the first ever release into the wild of an orangutan born in captivity, with Temara, who you had reared at Perth Zoo, what impact did that have on you?
It was wonderful for me personally because her grandmother was taken into captivity in 1968, and I was looking after her grandmother and her mother, and was of course there from day one looking after her from when she was born to when she was released into the wild. So it allowed me to see that one orangutan was able to see the freedom that she deserved and which is her birthright, but it also allowed us to demonstrate that orangutans, even though they are born in captivity are capable of, with the right instructions and the right care, to be taken through a rehabilitation process so they can be free again in the wild, and in this case help re-establish a population that went extinct in the 1830s in lands that The Orangutan Project, together with our partners, is leasing and securing from destruction.
What are your current priorities?
Our number one priority is protecting enough habitat in viable ecosystems to secure the survival of the species. So we are looking to not only secure habitat but habitat which is of high conservation value and in large enough areas for orangutans to survive, because unfortunately now 80% of orangutans are now living outside of protected areas in degraded forest and it’s these areas we need to secure, turn back degradation and make sure we can have viable populations for the future. Because if we don’t achieve this in the next few years orangutans will of course be around for some time in the future but their populations will be ultimately unviable and they will grow extinct.
What challenges are facing your organisation?
The main challenge is the lack of funds to enact the conservation which actually needs to happen. So it is relatively a very small amount, you know for $20 million a year we could do this, which seems like a lot of money but in comparison to the money we waste on wars and on rather much more useless endeavours, it’s a very small and effective cost especially considering more global warming is caused by the destruction of rainforest than all the transport systems in the world combined so it is a very low hanging fruit that will not only benefit orangutans but as we discussed before, Indigenous people, local people, the long-term standing economy in Indonesia and future generations by mitigating global warming in the easiest way possible.
You were a winner of last year’s Australian Ethical grants, how important is it that the corporate world supports NFPs?
It is important that we do get the support because ultimately this is not about, as I mentioned the environment versus the economy, it’s about creating a sustainable economy to the benefit of all. And even the rich and the powerful, even corporates themselves in the long-term will benefit from a sustainable economy. That just benefits all, ie the consumers and of course future generations.
What is the future direction of The Orangutan Project?
The long term goal is to secure enough habitat to protect 8,000 orangutans living naturally in the rainforest in viable populations.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
The greatest achievement I think is for me, is developing The Orangutan Project, with a sound, ethical and effective basis for conservation. Indiscriminate charity can cause more trouble in the world that it can solve, and much money is wasted being colloquial in designing projects and for organisations being competitive against each other and so developing The Orangutan Project, in which we partner with all legitimate organisations we sublimate the organisation in aid of the ultimate cause so, like a doctor that can prescribe the right amount of medicine in the right dosage for every ailment, it allows us to most effectively provide conservation value for everywhere we work over the orangutan’s range.
What motivates you?
What motivates me is compassion for living beings and while saving the orangutans we get to save all the other wildlife such as tigers, elephants, the bio-diversity, we are doing something good which benefits all humanity too. And so being able to spend one’s life doing something good, that is ultimately a benefit to all living beings and their welfare, seems to me a very decent way to spend one’s life.
In some ways it’s how it happened, I started working with them, in other ways, they chose me. Because when I started working there I didn’t have any training and they are six to 10 times stronger than a human, but I managed to be able to work in with them in their enclosures and help them raise their babies and look after them when they were sick, because for some reason they like me and so I developed strong friendships with many orangutans and obviously feel a moral responsibility to be a voice for them and a companion, a comrade, to not allow this beautiful noble species, a sentient, self-aware being to go extinct for no good reason.
Do you see yourself staying in the not-for-profit sector for the rest of your career?
Yes, I believe that is the only thing that I am really capable of doing, I can’t see myself getting up in the morning and working just for money or a mortgage or a better house, I really just can’t see me bothering to do that.
Is there anything that frustrates you about the not-for-profit sector?
I wouldn’t say there is nothing that bothers me about the sector, but we have to realise that the people who are in the charity sector are human beings and we [are] all fallible and people have egos, and so it would be naive to think that the charity sector doesn’t have the problems that you may also experience in the corporate world. But the way to deal with that is to work with people in a non-judgemental way for win-win situations, and we can do that. It is about being non-judgemental and always making sure that we always do what is best for the cause.
Do you have a favourite saying?
The one I often say is that for a society or even the individual, the best measure of their worth is how they treat the powerless. And so how we treat the powerless of society, in this case we are talking about the orangutans, the other wildlife, animals and local Indigenous people, is a real measure of our civilisation and this is a challenge that we have as humanity to stand up for, otherwise we are at the stage now with the destruction of the environment and global warming, it can even threaten our own existence if we are unable to increase our compassion to the powerless in society and the world.
Australian Ethical recognises that it’s difficult for NGOs to develop long-term strategies without longer-term funding. Given that we have supported both The Orangutan Project and Free To Shine for the last two years, we’re proud to announce that this year we’ve offered them both $20,000 funding for the next 3 years. We look forward to seeing what they can achieve!