The Dilemma of the Orangutans and the Advocacy of Richard Zimmerman
With all this said about how orangutans are wonderful creatures, it is quite sad to hear how their numbers are dwindling due to man-made actions such as deforestation and hunting. In many parts of the world where orangutans live naturally, they are in danger of extinction due to either losing their homes or being taken captive by hunters and sold to rich people, who somehow view ownership of them as a symbol of wealth and power.
Luckily, though, there are still people around the world who care about these amazing creatures – people like Richard Zimmerman, who has spent his life and career protecting and caring for them through his organization, the “Orangutan Outreach.” Through Richard’s efforts, not only are orangutans saved from being hunted or killed, but more people are becoming aware of their plight and supporting Richard, as well as other orangutan-advocacy causes.
Richard’s advocacy has had such a strong influence that many people worldwide, even the powerful and influential, have become part of this “orangutan revolution” and joined the cause of protecting and preserving these wonderful creatures.
Richard Zimmerman was born in Michigan, but his family later moved to Southern California. His love for apes, particularly orangutans, was nurtured early by his parents when they took him to the zoos of Los Angeles and San Diego. Whenever Richard visited them, he spent a lot of time in the apes section in awe of the chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, all while listening to explanations from the zoo guides about how these animals live.
At home, Richard spent much of his time watching National Geographic segments on animals and reading books about apes. Richard loved the outdoors, and explored his surroundings whenever he could go on hiking trips with his parents or simply stroll through the park. Richard’s exposure to the outdoors greatly influenced his passion for wildlife.
As a young student, Richard not only showed above-average intelligence, but also demonstrated natural leadership capabilities. His charming personality and aura of passion often convinced his classmates to join him in his endeavours. As Richard spent more time in extra-curricular activities, he also became more involved in non-profit organizations.
Adventure in Barcelona
Upon graduating from college, Richard moved to Barcelona, Spain. During his time there, he frequently visited Barcelona Zoo, which was home to the world’s most famous albino gorilla, “Snowflake.” Richard’s visits to the zoo also got him acquainted with Moe, a male Cheekpadder orangutan. Pitying Moe’s poor situation, Richard decided to spend time with the ape by sitting next to it and keeping it company whenever he visited the zoo.
Return to the United States
After finishing graduate school, Richard returned to the United States and settled in New York City, where he eventually took a job in the Communications Division at UNICEF’s headquarters. It was during this time that Richard began more research on the orangutans’ declining population in Southeast Asia (where they live naturally) after he saw a few websites advertising the issue.
Upon delving deeper into the situation, Richard learned of the orangutans’ desperate situation and resolved to help organizations keep them alive. With his computer expertise, Richard contacted several London-based orangutan conservation organizations and voluntarily offered his web development skills to help the organizations manage their websites. They welcomed Richard’s offer and, through his volunteerism, learned a great deal about how non-profit organizations work, something from which he later benefitted when he finally started his own organization.
Visiting Indonesia: A Turn-Around Event
Inspired by the conservation organizations for which he volunteered, Richard travelled to Indonesia in 2006 to see state of the orangutans for himself. By this time, Richard knew there was a great need for intervention to save them, but little did he know how grave the situation was until he finally landed and took a look around. Upon arriving in Indonesia, Richard expected a luscious, mammal-filled jungle, but it turned out to be a vast flat-land with miles and miles of cut trees and burnt forests. When he searched for the orangutans, Richard found hundreds in rescue centers who were fortunate enough to have been saved by local NGOs.
In an interview regarding the situation in Indonesia, Richard stressed the graveness of the situation:
“We are losing the forests at an alarming rate and if this continues it won’t matter how many orangutan’s lives we’ve saved. There will be no place left to return them to. Their home will be gone.”
What Richard witnessed in Indonesia saddened him, but it also lit a fire inside of him to do more than what he had been doing to help the orangutans. Upon returning to the United States, Richard coordinated with several conservation organizations to address the issue of the orangutans in Indonesia losing their habitat.
The following year, in 2007, Richard returned to Indonesia to meet with several stakeholders and encouraged them to do more to save the orangutans and their habitat. The campaign was not easy, as some of the local government’s high-ranking officials were leading the fight against Richard and the conservation teams. Realizing that change would not happen unless more people were involved, Richard returned to the United States with a new plan in mind: to start his own organization.
The Start of “Orangutan Outreach”
Upon his return, Richard founded “Orangutan Outreach,” a non-profit organization which aims not only to address the situation of the orangutans in Indonesia, but also to get more people involved by using the internet and other forms of media to spread its message.
Aside from direct involvement in caring for rescued orangutans, one of Orangutan Outreach’s main advocacies is the preservation of their habitat by discouraging buyers from purchasing products that come from Indonesian forests, such as palm oil products. In many of his speeches, Richard points out that one of the reasons for so much deforestation in Indonesia is the huge demand for such products.
When asked in an interview how people can help save the orangutans, Richard said:
“One way to help is by refusing to buy products that contain palm oil. It’s in nearly all our common foods, snack, shampoos, personal hygiene products, etc. Sumatra is riddled with illegal palm oil plantations and a political system that is rife with corruption. The forest maps he presented looked like a slice of swiss cheese. The palm oil companies are not only illegally taking over protected land but literally burning through it in order to eventually plant their palms. Consumers have a lot of power and in the US, buying local is a big step in the fight to avoid palm oil.”
Rise to Popularity
Since its inception in 2007, Orangutan Outreach has grown rapidly, thanks to Richard’s leadership and shows such as Animal Planet’s “Orangutan Island,” which details the life of orangutans in Indonesia and the dangers they face – mainly hunting and deforestation. Through Orangutan Outreach, Richard raised more than one-million dollars in a span of just over six years to help protect the orangutans.
Throughout his career as the head of Orangutan Outreach, Richard has been responsible for several programs that have significantly improved the lives of rescued orangutans in Indonesia. One example is the recently-launched “Apps for Apes” campaign, in which donated iPads are used to enrich the learning processes of chimpanzees and orangutans living in zoos and sanctuaries.
In an interview, Richard recalled how he came to think of the “Apps for Apes” campaign:
“I immediately thought of it when I saw Steve Jobs give his presentation introducing the iPad. As soon as the word ‘app’ became part of our vocabulary, I thought we should have 'apps' for apes... The idea just took off from there!”
“Orangutan Outreach” Today
Today, Orangutan Outreach is one of the most successful primate conservation organizations in the world, spanning numerous countries and establishing relationships and strategic partnerships with organizations such as the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, the International Animal Rescue, and the Center for Orangutan Protection, to name a few.
As Richard looks ahead, he knows there is still a lot of work to be done. With all the success that Orangutan Outreach has achieved, Richard acknowledges that if the curtain were to be pulled back, he and his team have just scratched the surface, and more can still be accomplished. And, in spite of obstacles along the way, Richard is completely dedicated to helping protect and care for the orangutans:
“We know of more than 60 orangutans being held as illegal pets, chained up and being kept in tiny boxes with no medical attention and a diet that is killing them slowly. We need to confiscate these orangutans and bring them to safety. These innocent orangutans did nothing to deserve the cruel fate that has befallen them. They need our help. Now.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Orangutan Outreach
- Apps for Apes
- Center for Orangutan Protection
- International Animal Rescue
- Bos Nyaru Menteng
- Earth 4 Orangutans
- Friends of the National Parks Foundation
- Enrichment Angels
- Sintang Tragedy
- Sumatran Orangutan Society
- Orangutan Information Center
Orangutan Outreach (About Us)
Portland City Science Club (Interview with Richard Zimmerman of Orangutan Outreach)
Scientific American (Apps for Apes: Engaging Orangutans with iPads)
One More Generation [Apps for Apes (A4A)]