14 Sep 2004, 01:30:53 PM

Reporter: Andrea Burns

These orang-utan babies have no mum, no dad But thanks to Leif Cocks, Curator at Perth's Zoo and Australia's foremost orang-utan expert, they might have a future.

As founder and president of conservation group “The Australian Orang-utan Project” (or AOP), Leif also spends every minute he can trying to save these beautiful creatures even his time off. He declares: “If we don't do something now, it's going to be too late Orang-utans are endangered, or critically endangered, depending on which species. That means, within the next 5 or 10 years, there's a real possibility they will be extinct”.

Here, deep in the Indonesian jungle, is home to many of these amazing animals which share 97% of human DNA. It is also one of the key places where the AOP is channelling funds, to save their lives.

Leif Cocks doesn't drive a fancy car, or live lavishly. His money, time and effort go to raising money and awareness to save this species. “The work we are doing here gives meaning to our lives” he explains.

One reason why the orang-utans are disappearing is logging, stealing their homes from beneath them. Life in Borneo is basic, often incredibly poor. As you fly in, you can see the smoke from burn-offs, clearing the rainforest to farm. Travel down the river, the pollution is choking. Selling the trees gives locals the chance to make a quick, if illegal, buck.

“When the land is cleared, the orang-utans are dispersed: the females may stay and be slaughtered – and they're eaten, possibly – and the babies sold on the illegal pet trade” says Leif.

This trip with Leif unveiled an Indonesia that's very different to the Bali holiday so many Australians know. Like this feeding station for wild orang-utans, inside the Tanjing Putting National Park.

A couple of hours by boat down the Sekonyer River, we arrive at Camp Leakey. Established more than thirty years ago by Canadian Professor Birute Galdikas. AOP helps her fund the orang-utans. She explains her passion: “If we cant save them, and they're our cousins, and we're the closest living relative in the animal kingdom, then I would say we have failed”.

Volunteers like Elkie Burick come from all over the world to help rehabilitate the animals. “My dad always said I'd grow out of my fetish for orang-utans, but I haven't” laughs Elkie.

Ecotourism is the way forward in this area – Camp Leakey is just one of the destinations. “It doesn't get much closer to nature for the tourist than this, huh?” says Leif.

Further upriver is the professor's quarantine and care centre. AOP's money helps pay the wages – often the money Leif is putting in is his own. Here, carers become round-the-clock mothers to traumatised babies. Staff are only paid a few dollars a day But the more locals working here, the fewer there are out logging. It's a cost Leif hopes Australians will help meet through their orang-utan adoption program.

To Leif Cocks, the rehabilitation and liberation of the orang-utans is the prize. He has dedicated almost 2 decades of his life to orang-utans. And his battle wont end until they're safe. “We cant control whether we'll be successful or not, but we can control whether we try”.

Adopting an orang-utan costs $55, or donations are welcome.


Australian Orangutan Project

PO Box 1414

South Perth,

Western Australia, 6951

Or www.orangutan.org.au

* Garuda organises eco-tours to the area. Call Garuda Indonesia on 1300 365 331