In the last 20 years, a whopping 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil, rapidly destroying the orangutan’s natural habitat. Conservationist and former Perth Zoo worker, Leif Cocks has spent the past three decades fighting to save the species from extinction. As the founder of The Orangutan Project, Leif and his colleagues work between Borneo and Sumatra desperately trying secure protected areas and widen forest landscapes for the orangutans to survive.
Known for his unique ability to connect with and calm traumatised orangutans, Leif has become a legend in the animal world and his new book recites the story behind it all. The book, Orangutans: My Cousins, My Friends, is an eye-opening and a heart-wrenching account of personal experiences with orangutans and a heartfelt plea to save them from extinction.
Leif was born in Sydney, raised in Hong Kong then found his love for orangutans during his 25 years working at Perth Zoo. He started at the zoo as a bird keeper, eventually taking over the orangutan enclosure knowing nothing other than how to feed them. After growing fond of the species, he left his position to dedicate his life to The Orangutan Project, travelling monthly to Indonesia rehabilitating injured orang-utans and fighting to protect their rainforest habitat.
With the species sharing 97 per cent of their DNA with humans, Leif believes they have the human right to live free from cruelty and captivity. His belief excelled when testifying before an Argentinian court that a 30-year-old orangutan named Sandra, was, in fact, a person, after she showed signs of depression in captivity. A decision was handed down by the judge that acknowledged Sandra had the right to an adequate habit and activities to preserve her mental abilities.
Leif says saving the orangutans is a serious battle and there are many reasons why we need to act -the urgency of their rights as sentient persons, the urgency of suffering and the urgency of extinction.
“Because of their high intelligence, the development of their ego, which is what suffers in a conscious being, means that they are suffering and the destruction and slaughter to extinction makes it far more urgent from a compassionate perspective.”
While there is a vast amount of support for animal well-fare organisations, it is a constant combat to sustain financial support to stop the species from deteriorating. Leif believes people feel compelled to donate to charities such as health and cancer research because of a personal connection, and this is where animal welfare is lacking.
“Although I can explain all the good reasons to donate to help the orangutans, the personal connection for most people is what is missing, people care but we need to drive them to act.”
His goal for the upcoming years is to spread the importance of orangutan extinction and expand The Orangutan Project.
“The book has 2 purposes, to raise money for the cause and engage people and inspire people to say ‘this is something worthwhile’,” he says.
“The money is what is holding us back from the act of change and enacting that money to spend it wisely to help the orangutans and save the forest.”
Being the noble man he is, Leif’s aim is to confront company’s destroying the forests in a non-demonising manner as he disagrees with conservationists who seek to destroy or embarrass big companies. He says people cannot try to reform the world without reforming themselves.
“We can’t demonise the people we are trying to confront, because what happens as a conservationist or for any cause is suddenly you feel legitimised for bad behaviour, so you treat other people badly, you don’t connect with them, and that is not the way to do it.”
Leif wants to work with companies affecting the well-being of the orangutans to find a common vision and make a real solution.