Video: Julie Ions took to the skies to raise money for Orangutans

WATCHING wild orangutans swinging between the trees of the lush Bornean jungle has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life so far. I was fortunate enough to witness a mother orangutan graciously moving through the treetops clenching a baby

WATCHING wild orangutans swinging between the trees of the lush Bornean jungle has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life so far.

I was fortunate enough to witness a mother orangutan graciously moving through the treetops clenching a baby in her arms, with her junior trying to build-up enough oomph behind his swing so he could grab the next branch and follow her.

But while captivated by this rare sight, I was fully aware that such a marvel is in grave danger of becoming a thing of the past if wild orangutan numbers continue diminishing at the alarming rates they have been.

With this in mind, I visited the Great Orangutan Project's (GOP) UK base in Harpenden High Street to find how it's trying to save these amazing animals from extinction.

The conservation group is responsible for more than 250 orangutans across a number of rescue and rehabilitation projects in Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia.

Volunteers purchase trips through an arm of the organisation called Way Out Experiences (WOX), which keeps each project going, both from manpower and funding perspectives.

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More than 40 per cent of the money taken from volunteers, which has amounted to over �250,000 since 2006, is pumped straight back into orangutan conservation.

Julie Ions, client relations officer, said: "We make other people's dreams come true, it's like I'm a fairy godmother sometimes. But at the same time we are helping these animals."

The palm oil trade has seen enormous swathes of rainforest across Borneo destroyed for plantations. But for the GOP, the illegal pet trade is the biggest threat to orangutans in the areas they cover and they regularly rescue those being kept in homes.

Julie explained: "We have had animals come to us in poor states, sometimes young ones with bullet wounds. And when someone has taken in a baby for a pet, it means it probably watched its mother die, and baby orangutans cling to their mothers even when she is dead. You can't begin to imagine the psychological impact of that for an infant."

It also means the young orangutans don't get the chance to live in the wild and can start thinking human pastimes such as reading a newspaper are normal for them.

In rehabilitation, these orangutans are taught how to survive in the wild, in the hope that they can be released one day. That includes putting them into 'jungle school,' where they learn skills like how to climb, find food and to be fearful of snakes.

It is done at the Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo, where the orangutans live in large, natural enclosures within the rainforest during their rehabilitation.

Among its many success stories so far is 19-year-old male ape Aman. He was blind with cataracts in both eyes when he arrived and had to feel his way around his enclosure but now he can see thanks to a pioneering operation made possible by the GOP.

"He has got a massive high platform and he now sits gazing across the park," said Julie.

At the same centre, two orangutans called Chiam and Gante gave birth to two healthy babies within hours of each other in February, which is unprecedented.

At the Sambojah Lestari Sanctuary in Indonesian Borneo, which the GOP has recently created in partnership with Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS), the orangutans roam around in a semi-wild habitat. It's the largest sanctuary of its kind in the world and is currently caring for 225 orangutans and 50 sunbears.

Orangutans born into captivity in two zoos in mainland Malaysia are also under the care of the GOP and volunteers enhance their lives and educate locals about them.

The GOP's aim is to find a long-term conservation solution and that involves changing the attitudes of the locals. This has even involved going into the jungle and speaking to the native tribes to convince them to stop hunting orangutans.

Julie said: "I remember not so long ago people there thought it was lowly to work with animals, and what has helped is traditional westerners paying a premium to do these jobs. The locals have sat up and realised that there's more to animals than eating them and chopping down their homes."

But to continue this great work, especially that at Sambojah Lestari, the organisation needs volunteers to work both with the orangutans and in construction.

As a former volunteer herself, Julie highly recommends it: "Volunteers come back knowing that they have contributed to something worthwhile - it's that feelgood factor, you feel pumped up and want to do more when you get back.

"For example, our bank manager gave up her car when she got back to do her bit to cut carbon emissions and another volunteer has recently brought an eco-friendly car."

If you are interested in taking part in one of the projects call 0845 371 3070, or visit

The video shows Julie's recent skydive to raise money for the new sanctuary.

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