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IAR Ketapang Volunteer Projects

Project summary:
In 2010, International Animal Rescue set the task of building a new rescue and rehabilitation centre for the orang-utan of West Kalimantan. Within 2 years, 57 orangutan were resident at the centre, which was not yet completed, showing the huge need for such a project in this location. Orangutan Project joined IAR on this venture, providing the service at which we excel – financial and physical assistance through a truly responsible volunteering program.

This volunteering program asks for participants who do not mind working incredibly hard to literally help to build a future for the orangutan of West Kalimantan, both those already resident at the centre and those that need protection in the wild. It will be a challenge, but one that you will find hugely worthwhile and immensely satisfying as you carry out physical labour of the type you have never done before, develop skills you’ve never used in your ‘normal’ life and leave a very tangible impact behind you.

The project is an ambitious and costly one but it could save the lives of countless animals in desperate need, as well as contributing to the survival of the orangutan species as a whole.  

For the majority of the construction, local building companies are employed as obviously skilled and experienced workmen are required. Volunteers sometimes assist the local workforce, though more commonly work on separate, independent projects that bring something extra and add value to the site. One of our philosophies is that volunteers on site should only be providing a benefit; they should not be a drain on financial or management resources of the authorities and their presence on site should not have a detrimental impact in any way. We work very closely with our partners to ensure our vision is shared, but on the ground we operate as independently as possible to provide a positive impact without requiring their management time, which is best spent on their own (rather substantial!) tasks and goals.

Who we area:
Orangutan Project Sdn Bhd is a Malaysian company specialising in operating meaningful and responsible tours and volunteering projects. Our work is currently focused on Borneo, and though the primary focus has historically been orangutan welfare and conservation, we are interested in helping any and all protected wildlife, wherever possible.

We are proud to present a model of true eco-tourism, where funds generated by the volunteers and tourists that we work with are spent directly on our conservation and welfare work at the centres and in the areas that we are based. Though a lot of our work resembles that of charities or NGOs, we have chosen to operate as a commercial company to promote a more charitable means of running a business. We see no shame in a company aiming to achieve a profit, but our model is to spend that profit on a cause in need, and the cause we care passionately about is the plight of endangered species.

As stated above, we believe that volunteers should only be providing a positive impact to the centres and/or animals they wish to help. All too often, travel agents will sell the theory that by simply turning up and volunteering your time, you are being helpful by default. This is a model that allows the agents to make maximum profit for minimum workload. The truth is, the management of a volunteer program that provides both a tangible, positive impact to its location and a meaningful, memorable experience to the participant requires a team of staff dedicated to the project on the ground. A team of English-speaking facilitators is essential, as well as all the equipment that the person will need while working (paint, brushes, shovels, wheelbarrows, work gloves, saws etc). Expecting the centres to provide all of this actually places a burden upon them and prevents them continuing their daily work.

‘Volunteering’ is perhaps a misleading name for the opportunity we offer to work with us at the orangutan rescue and rehabilitation centres. It is more than working for free – volunteers pay to join us on our projects, and through this fee are actually funding a huge amount of required materials, essential members of staff and works undertaken on the ground. Simply expecting to work voluntarily is not always useful. A successful, meaningful volunteer program takes a lot of hard work to manage, and rehabilitation centres are expensive to run. It is therefore the only logical model that a volunteer should make a significant financial contribution as well. Orangutan Project is a financially transparent company, and will happily share publically any and all financial records, so you can be sure your money is used on the ground, at the centres, for the benefit of the animals you care about.

Your role – general information:
To participate on this project, a good level of fitness is required. The work is physical, and the heat and humidity add a challenging extra layer to this. Though there is a working schedule and plan for each volunteer group, please be aware you are coming to an operational rescue and rehabilitation centre, and we cannot predict what may happen each day, with potential new arrivals or any of the current orangutan under the centre’s care. We ask that volunteers are willing to be flexible, and are tolerant of potential delays in or changes to the planned work as different projects may get re-prioritised. 

You will also need patience as you adjust to ‘Borneo time’ – volunteers often come to the project with huge amounts of enthusiasm and energy to plough into the work, which is a massive asset and positively impacts on the energy levels of the full time staff. However, please be aware that within a four week project, you will simply be adding a helpful and necessary piece to a much larger puzzle, and you should not expect the world of orangutan conservation to make great strides forward in the timeframe of your project.

Your Daily Work:
The work at this project site is always varied and often not the same from one month to the next. Most of the work is physically demanding and always outdoors, meaning you also have to cope with the tropical elements. You should truly be prepared for anything! Most of your days will be spent on construction or maintenance projects essential to advancing the construction of the new centre. Tasks completed to date by the volunteer project include:

  • Digging out a very large, 600m long ditch for the purpose of providing a fire break in the forest for the security of the centre and the orangutan
  • Installing perimeter fencing, requiring the mixing of many hundreds of kilos of cement by hand in the Bornean sun
  • The construction of two large climbing platforms as permanent in situ enrichment for the day area used by the baby orangutan resident at the centre
  • Construction of a colossal iron-wood tower in a forested area. This is for orangutan in the area to use, and also for staff to use as an observation area for viewing of orangutan and monitoring of the surrounding forests
  • Provision and installation of electric fencing for all enclosures
  • Assisting with some rescue and release operations carried out by IAR – please note that this activity is certainly not guaranteed to take place every month so will not be an experience for every volunteer on this project. However if something like this takes place during your time, is appropriate for volunteers to observe and is certain that the presence of volunteers will not be of detriment to the operation, you will be able to join the team
  • Creation of various enrichment devices, both in situ which will be semi-permanent inclusions to enclosures and disposable, single-use-only items for the orangutan’s immediate enjoyment 

During enrichment work, which is generally how you will spend a minimum of one working day in every week, you will have great opportunities to observe the orangutan and widen your understanding of their behaviours and characters. When working around the orangutan, you will be expected to follow best practise guidelines for volunteering with great apes, which include: 

  • No physical contact at any time with any of the orangutan. This is for two main reasons:
  1. The aim of the rehabilitation centres is to return the orangutan to the semi-wild, or wild in some cases. Close physical contact with many different people has an extremely detrimental effect on the behaviour of these animals. Orangutan are very smart, and learn very efficiently through observation and imitation. Therefore, the more humans they are exposed to, the more they try to behave like us, rather than like orangutan, which only impedes their return to the trees.
  2. There is a very real risk of disease transmission from humans to orangutan (zoonosis), and in the 0-3 year old orang-utan, even a common cold can be fatal. Increasing the number of people who have close contact with the orangutan simply increases the chance that a potentially fatal pathogen is transmitted to these animals. Permanent staff that have contact with the animals are all subject to blood screening, which we do not insist on for volunteers.
  • Facemasks are to be worn at all times when in close proximity to the orangutan. When participating in orangutan enrichment, you will often be just 2-3 metres away from the animals with only a cage between you. Therefore, a physical barrier to prevent the spread of communicable diseases is mandatory for all volunteers.
  • No food or drinks (outside of the diet provided by the centre) to be given to the orangutan at any time.
  • Always listen to and follow the instructions of your supervisor/the animal keepers/the rangers.
  • When observing semi-wild orang-utan, do not take food or drink into their areas, keep a safe distance from the animal and always follow the directions of the member of staff you are with.

These guidelines are for the safety both of yourself, and the animals that you are coming to help.

For a volunteer program to truly be of the most benefit to the orangutan, the volunteers should not really even see the orangutan. The detrimental impact of habituation and humanisation on these animals cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, the media and charities, particularly surrounding orangutan rehabilitation centres and conservation, are saturated with images of white people hugging the animals, especially baby orangutan. This creates the misleading impression that to be of use in a primate rehabilitation centre, all you need do is love the monkeys and fuss over them as you would a human child. 

We are working to create a new model of tourism and volunteering, where the interaction with the orangutan is kept to an absolute minimum, yet the impact and educational value to the human participant is incredibly high.

Where you will live:
The accommodation will be basic, Indonesian style and shared, though we will try to ensure that each volunteer has their own bedroom. Due to the nature of this project, the accommodation changes occasionally and our ultimate aim is to have facilities on site at the rehabilitation centre itself. For the foreseeable future however, the shared house will be located closer to the town of Ketapang.

There are a number of bedrooms, a toilet, wash room, kitchen and outdoor area. The toilet is Indonesian style, by which we mean a hole in the floor. There is not always a shower, rather more traditional washing apparatus in the form of a container full of water and a scoop/bucket. There is no computer or wifi in the house, but there is an internet café within walking distance. The house as a whole and facilities are certainly basic, though there have been no complaints from our past volunteers and we believe it is more than comfortable, as long as your expectations are correct.

Remember that Indonesia is a developing country, and incidents of human poverty are common. The very poorest volunteer on our project will be immeasurably rich by comparison, so please bear this disparity in mind when interacting with the local people. Be mindful of how you dress, as Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country – if females walk around in shorts or short skirts with vest tops on you will certainly be stared at and likely cause offense.

However, be prepared to be stared at, whatever you wear and however you look, as Western people are still an incredible novelty item in Ketapang. Indonesians are very friendly by nature too, so be prepared for everyone to try to wave at you, talk to you, try and get a photo taken with you, or all of the above, when you venture into the town.

There are some beautiful beaches in the area, and close by is the national park of Gunung Palung. You will have at least one free day in every week, and your project facilitator will be happy to arrange excursions. However, many volunteers are more than happy for a day simply sitting!

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