2010 Innovation Award Finalist: Jessica McKelson
Innovation Leader: Jessica McKelson, Director, Raw Wildlife Encounters
Nominated by Jacquie O’Brien, Zoo Victoria (Individual Category)
Raw Wildlife Encounters was born out Jessica McKelson’s passion for, and dedication to the conservation of Indonesia. One of the earth’s few remaining biodiversity hotspots, Tangkahan is home to some of the world’s most endangered wildlife including Sumatran Tigers, Orang-utans, Asia Rhinos and Asian Elephants.
The region is perched on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park, an area that has been disseminated by illegal logging for timber and to make way for oil palm plantations. Jess created the business out of a desire to share the natural beauty of the place with others, provide a more lucrative and sustainable livelihood for many communities impacted by illegal logging and to save the remarkable wildlife of this region.
The boutique tour company takes small groups of up to 6 people on tours of the North Sumatran Region. Its grass-roots involvement with communities and conservation projects within Indonesia has enabled it to develop a co-operative partnership with the world’s oldest international conservation organisation, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) in particular with their Sumatran Elephant Conservation Project and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project (SOCP). Spending time with these important conservation projects is at the core of the tours offered by Jess and her team.
The tours are headed by experienced Zookeepers from Melbourne Zoo who have dedicated many years to working with endangered species both in captivity and in the wild. They are all considered experts in their field. On first meeting them, their passion for the protection of the region and the animals and their plight is instantly recognisable.
Raw Wildlife actively supports local communities in their objective to preserve the forest for future generations. To help achieve these goals, a percentage of the tour fees are donated to both community and conservation programs including forest protection programs, forest rehabilitation work, research and wildlife protection programs. Just as conservation is important to help protect the region, so to is the engagement, education and sustained livelihoods of the local community. This is why a percentage of the tour price also goes to providing grants for education in ecotourism and sustainable agriculture, developing alternative livelihoods, sustainable tourism development and local employment opportunities.
Raw Wildlife Encounters is an experience that not only make guests feel good about being part of them, they also empower people to do something about the threats to the region and its wildlife. Many go home as outspoken advocates for the resolution of issues such as deforestation caused by the world’s consumption of palm oil.
The company also provides alternative and more lucrative livelihoods for communities who would otherwise have little choice but to work in illegal logging. While the business is only in its second year, it already employs six full time staff. The staff receive above the average local wage and are given the necessary training to ensure they can progress their careers within the company or the broader ecotourism industry. The business also provides supporting livelihoods for more than 100 local people.
Nelson Mandela once said “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” It is this approach that is at the core of Raw Wildlife Encounters philosophy and Jess’ approach to managing the business. Through the business, Jess is currently supporting one of her staff to undertake a Diploma of Ecotourism and Tourism Management at STIM, Sukma, Medan. The staff member has since won a Government scholarship to continue her studies. Raw Wildlife Encounters has also forged a partnership with the University and helped form a working youth group called MAPALA. This groups consists of 25 students and introduces city students to the natural beauty of the region of Tangkahan and supports them to participate in the conservation programs within the field.
From education also comes empowerment and this is why Raw Wildlife Encounters also supports local communities to not only be involved in conservation and sustainability projects but also to develop these projects in the most cultural and socially appropriate way. This includes the development of a local litter Education program to curb that amount of rubbish ending up in the river, that provides life for local communities and wildlife. The money to implement this litter program was supported financially by a former guest of Raw Wildlife Encounters and has already helped to draw local tourism back to the region.
“Since conception of Raw Wildlife Encounters (RWE), we have been pleased with the limited guests for each tour, consisting of only 6 per tour, which ensure the natural habitat is not spoilt by uncontrolled tourism. RWE has helped encourage the local community to increase the cost for activities in the area which limits the tourist total, and also provides enough money for alternative livelihood programs, which would help supplement the local communities’ salaries, rather than illegal damaging processes like illegal logging. Jess has been a great advocate and role model to the local community of Tangkahan and has been able to set-up a number of different community programs with FFI support. She has been able to conduct Ranger Training Programs to the local youth of the region and also has been able to financially support the re-development of the visitor information centre. This provides the local community members with ranger skills which assist in educating the guests that visit this region. By employing key members for her group of guests, they have been able to transfer their lives from illegal practices into securing a healthy and sustainable income. FFI is looking forward to working further with RWE into the future to further develop sustainable ecotourism initiatives and also implement key conservation strategies.” – Wahdi Azmi, FFI Sumatra