Zoo keeper Jessica McKelson on a mission of mercy for orangutans

Jess McKelson and Sue Floyed have just returned from Nyaru Menteng and Samboja Lestari. They'll be providing an update on progress and challenges in our first Grapevine for 2009.

Herald Sun: Marianne Betts: December 06, 2008

AS FAR as mercy missions go Jessica McKelson has seen it all in her battle to save the orang-utans in Borneo.

The primates are facing extinction as the rainforests, which are their natural habitat, are destroyed to make way for profitable palm oil plantations.

The 27-year-old Melbourne Zoo keeper makes frequent trips to work at the Nyaru Menteng Rehabilitation Centre, the world's largest primate rescue project.

She has rescued animals whose mouths were ripped to shreds from eating palm oil and others covered in dog bites. Still more have had limbs chopped off by bounty hunters, paid by plantation managers to provide evidence they've destroyed the threat to their crops.

Not long before McKelson's first visit to the Indonesian part of Borneo, she was horrified to hear of a young female orang-utan, Poney, rescued from a brothel. Centre staff had to make three attempts to rescue Poney, who was chained to a bed.

She has been rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

"She is a wild animal again now. She has a male that tries to pursue her. Her hair's all grown back. She's absolutely beautiful."

While McNelson is no longer as shocked as she was on her first trip to Borneo four years ago, one thing still gets to her -- rows of cages of wild orang-utans that have come straight from the palm oil plantations to the centre.

"There's up to 100 of them, each in a big cage, some have mothers with newborn babies.

"They should be in the forest, they are wild animals."

The project, founded by Danish woman Lone Droscher Nielsen in 1999, has more than 600 orang-utans in its care, of which 90 per cent are orphaned.

"It's very hard to take an infant off the mum. She'll put up a fight to her death rather than let the infant go," McKelson says.

Orang-utans, which share 97 per cent of our DNA, are dependent upon their mothers up until the age of nine, so many of those rescued need constant care.

The centre has a nursery where local women act as surrogate mothers to the baby orang-utans, caring for them around the clock.

"The ladies are there for them when they cry in the night, (and) they feed them. Sometimes they have nightmares from their mother's death," McKelson says.

ONE night, nine babies were brought in over a 12-hour period, and she ended up sleeping with them because they wouldn't let her let go of them.

They are taught what to eat, what dangers to look out for and how to climb trees. Sometimes the women even break up squabbles between the infants.

After nursery, the orang-utans go to forest school one, before graduating to two once they reach the age of independence.

Eventually rehabilitated animals are put on pre-release islands, where staff still place food on feeding platforms, before they are released into the wild.

So far, 56 wild orang-utans have been released into a rainforest in the north of Central Kalimantan.

It doesn't look good for the orang-utans, with experts saying their forest home is disappearing at such a terrifying rate they could be extinct in a decade.

But there's plenty Australians can do -- avoid buying products containing palm oil, and wood from rainforests, McKelson says.

Borneo and Sumatra are the remaining areas that are home to wild orang-utans.

But McKelson is optimistic.

Is the battle to save these primates one that can be won?

"Yes," she says.