Drew '10 reaches out to endangered orangutans

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Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t, but the questions Wesley Drew ’10 heard about her future always seemed to come with a touch of sarcasm or cynicism.

“When are you going to Borneo?”

Wink.

“You’re going to become the next Jane Goodall, aren’t you? When are you going to do that?”

Wink. Wink.

The truth was that for the longest time -- from an elaborate collection of stuffed monkeys and hours spent at the zoo as a child to a rekindling of passion her junior year at William & Mary that was triggered by a biological anthropology class with Professor Barbara King -- that was Drew’s ambition. She even wrote fan letters to Goodall, the British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace who is considered to be the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees.

Drew loved primates, especially great apes. The semester after her course with King, Drew traveled to Costa Rica to study howler monkeys and take courses in primate behavior and animal cognition. There, she made an astonishing discovery.

She was passionate about primate conservation, but she really didn’t care for research. When she heard about the endangered state and looming extinction of orangutans, she went to work, conducting fund-raisers and sending the money overseas. She also started raising money for a trip to Borneo, despite the fact that she had accepted a position as assistant field hockey coach at the College after graduating with degrees in kinesiology and psychology.

“There was like this huge buildup inside of me,” said Drew. “I finally set up a Skype interview with officials of the Orangutan Foundation International.”

That was earlier this summer. The conversation was a shocker. They had one spot open for a volunteer to travel to Pangkalan Bun, central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia – but she had to be ready to leave in less than two weeks.

“I think they were expecting me to say it wasn’t enough notice,” Drew recalled. “But I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’ I think I caught them by surprise.”

The trip to Pangkalan Bun took her from Norfolk to New York, New York to Dubai, Dubai to Jakarta and the island of Java before two more puddle-jumpers finally landed her in Borneo and the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine.

Surely the arduous journey would be made worthwhile by her intimate interaction with orangutans?

Wrong.

For most of the next 25 days, Drew and 12 fellow volunteers from around the world constructed bridge walkways that made 80 hectares of primary peat swamp forest more accessible for orphan orangutans.

“I knew what the job entailed,” Drew said. “I knew it wasn’t a vacation. We worked every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. doing manual labor in Borneo, right on the equator. It was a lot of hard work, but that in and of itself was so rewarding. Even though I knew every day was going to be like the day before it, every single day I was doing something that would make an impact, actually helping these orangutans by expanding the secondary forest, which allows more orangutans to be released daily.”

The plight of the orangutan is both tragic and largely unknown.

Orangutans are found only in Asia and on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Their habitat is being destroyed in deference to the palm oil industry. The more trees cut down, the more the environment the orangutan needs for survival is compromised.

Many of the adult orangutans encountered suffer one of two fates: They are captured and put into the pet trade, where six of every seven die, or they are murdered on the spot.

The luckiest baby and juvenile orangutans are turned over to the Orangutan Foundation International, which nurses them, tends to their medical needs and gradually releases them into the remaining forest to begin their lives as nature intended.

But they need some pathway to get there, the type of pathway Drew and her crew constructed.

“I could see them released daily,” she said. “I knew what I was doing was helping these guys, and the staff was really appreciative.”

Near the end of her trip, Drew was transported by boat to Camp Leakey, where wild orangutans roam free.

“I could not imagine how beautiful it could be,” she says.

They were warned ahead of time that they would be mingling with wild animals. If an alpha male orangutan – they weigh about 350 pounds -- looked at you, the quick and only response was to immediately look away and walk away, for they view eye contact as threatening.

The alpha male, named Tom, did show up on the second day, and Drew got to see him interact with the other orangutans, as well as other tourists.

“You can’t learn everything from a book, that’s what I realized,” she said. “You see how he looks, his body language, what he gives off with just a look. It’s so powerful; you don’t get that in a book. It was a surreal experience.

“So was watching a wild mother with her infant climbing out of a tree and walking up to me. It just illustrates how gentle and kind they are as a species.”

Drew returned to Williamsburg in time for the annual Colonial Field Hockey Camp. She staged a raffle to raise money for OFI, coupling it with a nightly primate awareness program.

“Honestly, I didn’t think anyone would show up to hear the ‘Crazy Monkey Lady’ talk about orangutans, but the campers really responded well,” she said. “I saw it as a great opportunity to educate kids on a species that could be extinct in five to 10 years if nothing is done.

“The stats are alarming, the habitat destruction is accelerating. But we need to find a solution, an optimistic, realistic approach to the problem.”

Drew’s raffle raise $400, which purchased two acres of land – in the name of Tribe Field Hockey – and allowed two orangutans to be adopted by OFI.

Drew says that, for her, it’s just a start.

“I’m definitely going back,” she vowed, “maybe next year. I can really see myself as a primate conservationist for the rest of my life. I’m trying to integrate that with my passion for coaching field hockey right now, and I think it could be a perfect marriage.”