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Connecting with the people of the forest

By Karyl Estrella MIML

Nowhere else can you find orangutans in the wild except in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. So the rare opportunity to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is a genuinely thrilling prospect. A privilege that Core Laboratory Manager at Pathology Queensland, Lara Keller CMgr FIML, enjoyed as a Regional Representative for The Orangutan Project (TOP). “In May this year, I saw the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem in Central Sumatra. That was absolutely amazing because only eight people a year enter this conservation site,” recalls Keller. The area is inaccessible to tourists with visits reserved for those able to travel with TOP founder and President, Leif Cocks, while he monitors and evaluates the organisation’s work there.


Visits to the orangutan’s rainforest homes are exciting, but that’s not the primary motivation for Keller to volunteer. “In 2017, during a fundraiser for TOP, I got to hear Leif speak about the work they were doing. I’ve always been a massive animal lover and am fascinated by orangutans. They are intelligent, peaceful and sentient creatures, and are Critically Endangered. At that point, I wanted to do something to help, so I decided to volunteer.”

When not visiting remote rainforests, Keller’s activities are less adventurous, albeit very crucial. “Our main goal is to raise the profile of orangutan conservation,” says Keller. “So we do market stalls, attend festivals and visit schools to talk about how people can support the work. We also sell cookies, cakes, books and orangutan toys to raise funds on top of inviting people to adopt rescued orangutan orphans.”

Not only have these activities supported the charity’s ongoing efforts to rescue and rehabilitate orangutans, but they have also opened Keller up to a variety of audiences. “Recently, we visited a kindergarten. I wouldn’t be speaking to kindergarten children in my day job! But it’s a different kind of leadership experience for me.”

Volunteering has indeed helped Keller view leadership from a different lens. “It’s taught me a lot about how to adjust my leadership style and to take into account people’s motivations.” Contrasting her role as a health sector leader to her role as a volunteer leader, Keller hones in on the need to become a positive influence.

“Volunteers have no obligation to meet any targets as paid employees do. Ultimately, I must make them want to join me. They have to feel that we are all working towards something important together.”


Although given TOP’s unique position, it can be difficult to get a real sense of their work’s impact. Unlike most Australian charities whose work is based on home soil, all the results of the organisation’s efforts are only seen and felt in Indonesian rainforests. That’s why meeting the orangutans was a truly memorable experience for Keller.

On one outing to Central Kalimantan in Borneo last year, she witnessed the rehabilitation of young rescued orangutans in what TOP affectionately calls ‘jungle school’. “They were learning to climb trees, and one of them fell out of the tree and cried out like a baby,” Keller recalls. “It looked like he’d broken his arm, so they put on a splint and took this little one to the closest town, which is an hour and a half away. He got x-rayed, and fortunately, he didn’t fracture his arm and was back to climbing trees in no time.

“During the trip in May this year we saw mothers and babies who have been released back into the rainforest. When we reached a different part of the camp, I recognised one of our adopted babies, Citrawan, as she attended jungle school. I’ve seen so many photos of her and spoke about her to so many people. It was amazing to see her face-to-face. These are the moments not many people get to experience.”

Keller considers her volunteer work as a privilege, offering a unique sense of fulfilment. “You can go see orangutans in captivity, but seeing them in the wild is a completely different experience,” explains Keller. “I’ve looked them in the eyes and seen the person inside. And that’s how I view them, as persons.” Almost literally true when you consider that the word ‘orangutan’ in the Malay language translates to ‘person of the forest’.

It’s no surprise then that Keller recommends volunteering for all leaders. Her advice, “Find something you’re passionate about.” She also recommends doing your research and finding out what the commitment involves. The effort, Keller believes, is all worth it. “It’s been a marvellous thing for me. I feel this is something I do to reach my potential as a person. Giving something back and doing something for my soul makes me feel refreshed and excited. I love it!”


Today, there are only 104,700 Bornean orangutans, just 7,500 Sumatran orangutans and no more than 800 Tapanuli orangutans – the most endangered of all the great apes.

For more information about The Orangutan Project and their conservation work visit

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 print edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s exclusive Member’s magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact

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