Orange for Orang-utans

Luke had just arrived home from basketball practice and had to shower because he was so dirty, said his mum Emily. This was encouraging; the eleven-year-old Award winner was sounding like a normal boy. But how did his story begin? Back in 2016, on a visit to Melbourne Zoo Luke saw their petition for the labelling of palm oil on Australian products. He learned how expansion of growth areas for Palm oil was reducing the habitat of the orang-utans; on the way home he thought “Why don’t I do a petition of my own?”

Having drawn up his petition, Luke determined to obtain 1000 signatures – quite a challenge for a then eight-year-old. The obvious places to start gathering them were school (Blackburn Lake Primary), his basketball club, and his after-school early learning class Shichida Australia, which helped him to formulate his petition.

Luke told me: “I like how they said to believe in yourself and follow your passions”, and his mum says starting early really helped get him into this and to understand the world. It was hard getting people to sign. “The first day at school there was a pretty long line” says Luke, “then it kind of died down and I was just trying to get people I knew hadn’t signed it. People would ask what it was about and after a while you got tired of repeating ‘this is what it’s about’. Also, people thought I wanted money.”

Having achieved more than 1000 signatures, Zoos Victoria invited Luke to join them in Canberra when they presented their own petition. “I got to front a news conference, which was pretty cool. It was awesome getting the word out how the orang-utans need our help”.

World Animal Day in 2016, Zoos Victoria sought to turn Melbourne “ORANGE for orangutans” in support of the clear labelling of palm oil. Melbourne venues participated, including the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel, the Ian Potter Museum of Art and Federation Square. People came to them wearing orange, searched for 1000 plush orang-utans hidden around Federation Square, heard about why labelling palm oil was important to saving orang-utans – and, of course, signed their petition!

After returning from Canberra Luke wrote letters to Food Regulators, the Food and Grocery Council – even the Prime Minister. He also wrote to Kevin Sheedy (Luke’s team is Essendon) to see if a game could be turned orange (see box). “Didn’t happen though!” he adds with a rueful grin.

Petitions and letters are one thing, but there are other practical things you can do. Luke used his birthday money to adopt two orang-utans, Monty and Poppy, at a care facility in Borneo-Sumatra. Monty and Poppy needed help because of loss of their forest habitat.

There are also many of our own animals needing support. Luke and a few friends recently started a club (“We have about five club names, because we couldn’t agree on one”) to fundraise for the orange-bellied parrot. “We did a cake stall at school and raised around $500 from that.” Then there’s the helmeted honey-eater and Leadbeater’s possum – Victoria’s animal emblems – both critically endangered. Luke recently supported them by baking a cake for a Threatened Species Day Bake-off fund-raiser. “And I’m thinking of other ideas to help them”.

Another Zoos Victoria program for young people – a think tank called “The Hack” – was lately held to brainstorm ways to help the mountain pygmy possum. It is endangered because it eats the bogong moth, whose numbers have dramatically dropped for reasons still unclear. An idea that Luke contributed is a photo recognition mothtracker, accessed with an app; people sighting a bogong moth can photograph it on their mobile and send it in, providing distribution information. But orang-utans are still Luke’s passion, and this year Luke received Zoos Victoria’s Young Advocate of the Year Award. It was a complete surprise – the family didn’t even know he had been nominated. And what better way to round off this story than by quoting Nick Xenophon: “If I’m the Ambassador for orangutans, Luke should be the “UN Secretary General”!
About Chris Gray 13 Articles
Chris’s first opus: ‘I must not throw stones at the teacher’ won the Miles Franklin Award for Excellence. In 2006 ‘The Runes of Arkhan’ was published. He now writes regularly for The Burwood Bulletin.