With Western staffers that are volunteers in the truest sense of the word (see: no salaries, no benefits), Orangutan Project specialises in tourism experiences and ethical volunteering with protected species. We go behind the camera with Leo Biddle, CEO and Founder of the conservation company to talk about the damage caused by exploitative tourism, keeping non-profit businesses afloat, and managing Orangutan Project.
Q: Let’s go all the way to the beginning. You’re originally from England. How did you end up in Borneo?
A: Well, before I arrived, there was already a small NGO trying to establish a project at Matang Wildlife Centre to assist the wildlife authorities of Sarawak with managing and rehabilitating surrendered or confiscated animals that came to the centre. Unfortunately, this NGO wasn’t having very much success for a variety of reasons; rescue centres across the developing world can be very challenging places and the sheer diversity; and at times, numbers of animals that a centre like Matang receives simply generates so much work as well as being fiercely expensive to look after them all, it was simply too much for a relatively new and small NGO. By chance, I met one of the directors at a conference and they asked me to offer any assistance or advice that I could. I originally came to visit just in the role of an unsalaried consultant; however it quickly became apparent that in order to help I would have to take over the project and concentrate on the centre fulltime. By mutual agreement, the NGO then shut down and I established Orangutan Project and have been managing that first just at Matang Wildlife Centre, then later at additional locations across the island for the last eleven years.
Q: The Orangutan Project is currently handling quite a number of non-profit businesses – you have the Monkeebar in Kuching, and (soon) a beach resort in Lundu. What challenges have you faced so far with non-profit businesses?
A: We actually now have two non-profit bars, one restaurant and the hopefully soon-to-be open beach resort in Lundu and plan to continue to open additional non-profit businesses where we can into the future. The challenges for us are similar to anyone opening a new business – will it work? Most bars, restaurants and new businesses around the world fail within the first one to three years, so it’s always a little daunting especially since at the moment we have three new businesses starting this year. However, if we can make them work, it will mean sustainable funding into the future and a way to engage with local customers and communities and generate through their purchases, donations towards wildlife conservation that many would have been unlikely to make of their own choice. Donating to wildlife conservation charities tends not to be high on the list of many of the people we meet in Borneo, and we often hear that individuals do not feel they have enough money to spare for charity – however as we see all around the world people do not feel as though they are ‘wasting’ money when they spend it on themselves. Without doubt though, our biggest challenge is finding time to do so much in addition to the amount of work involved with all the animals.
Q: What are your thoughts on exploitative tourism opportunities? Do you see a lot of it happening in SouthEast Asian countries?
A: It’s a global problem but yes unfortunately we do see a lot of extremely exploitative tourism practices in South East Asia, particularly but not limited to animals used in tourism. Whether it be riding elephants (a despicable industry which I would implore your readers take the time to Google), posing for selfies with tigers, orangutan, slow lorises etc or volunteering on a project, isn’t actually doing any good. Unfortunately, where there is a demand, there will always follow a supply. If millions of tourists are happy to be ignorant of the damage and harm their leisure activities can cause and are willing to pay for an ‘experience,’ you can be sure that regardless of legal protections or ethics groups, supply will emerge to service that demand; this is true not just of say riding elephants but of drugs, child prostitution, exotic meat trade and so on. Many tourists we interview have no idea some of the things they’ve been doing even have a negative impact and are frequently horrified when we explain what these can be. Above all, it would help if tourists were to educate themselves prior to booking a tour or an interaction with an animal, with the power of the internet in everyone’s pocket there really is no excuse that so many do not. Lastly, conservation groups and media still have their part to play in raising awareness among the public, too often I see films or photos of colleagues or minor celebrities kissing, cuddling or otherwise playing with endangered wildlife and portraying them essentially as pets or friends (especially orangutan) which sends out totally the wrong message. I can’t actually think of a time when I’ve given an interview like this or a spot on television and not been asked if I can provide an image or shot of myself with a baby orangutan or other animal. There’s a real bias already at play within media to present wild animals as friends with or dependents on their caregivers. Until we change that, we collectively present to our audiences that it is acceptable to interact with wild endangered animals.
Q: In the documentary series Frontier Borneo, we follow a team of rangers (including yourself) at the forefront of wildlife preservation – from solving conflicts of farm-raiding elephants to hunting killer crocodiles. What is a day in the life of Leo Biddle like, besides rescuing the odd proboscis monkey?
A: It’s actually not as dramatic or interesting as perhaps the television documentary will make it look like. I start around 7am so long as there’s no emergencies and most days, I hardly manage to escape my office as there is a huge amount of paperwork and emails involved in running both the charity and all the other businesses. Finances, fundraising, lecturing, staff management, reports for government agencies – it’s all fairly tedious most days I’m afraid.
Catch Frontier Borneo on the Discovery Channel every Tuesday, 9.55pm, and check digital exclusives on http://www.discoverychannelasia.com/shows/frontierborneo/
Learn more about the Orangutan Project at http://projectorangutan.com/