Saving Orangutans with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program

By Alejandro Merritt, GPOCP Intern

I am a senior in high school from San Francisco, California. For just about a year, I have worked remotely with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program. It has been amazing. In this time period I have had the opportunity to work on numerous projects to benefit endangered orangutans from educating others with a short YouTube animated video, giving presentations to children at my old middle school, and raising $11,000 for GPOCP.

Discovering the plight of orangutans was one of the most important learning events in my life. As a high school sophomore, a bit aimless after basketball was canceled during the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, I was searching for a hobby. I have always loved animals, and as I learned more about the critically endangered status of all three orangutan species, I knew I had found a meaningful way to spend my time. It was orangutan conservation.

I began my work by researching and taking notes on the biology, ecosystem, unique qualities, and threats faced by our incredible orangutan cousins. Gradually, I fell in love with orangutans, and I decided to do two things next. One was to make a small contribution of money to an impactful orangutan conservation organization. The second was to provide education to others and shed light on the current status of the orangutan species. I chose to do this through the creation of a short, educational animation titled “10 Cool Facts About Orangutans.” I learned to use Adobe programs with a remote tutor, and I then spent four months creating and finalizing my animation. In February of 2021, I posted my video on YouTube, which now has over 2,000 views. Then, using my animated video and a short slideshow presentation, I began to give short Zoom and in-person presentations to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-grade students from my elementary and middle school.

In March of 2021, I reached out to the Founder of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program, Dr. Cheryl Knott, and was delighted when I was given the opportunity to work with her organization. The first thing I did was re-animate my video to include a section about GPOCP and their five conservation programs. I then created my personal website, where you can learn about the plight of orangutans as well as donate to GPOCP.

Alejandro’s video, 10 Cool Facts About Orangutans. 
Alejandro worked to research facts then direct, animate, write, voice and edit this video! Now, we can use the video to educate the public and draw support for our program.

As a final and huge project, I decided I would set a goal of raising $10,000 for this incredible organization. The process of brainstorming, planning, and raising money was very difficult at times, but I am so glad to have been able to contribute to the lives of the orangutans at Gunung Palung National Park.

I should say more about the fundraising, because by far it was the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my work for GPOCP. I began the fundraising by brainstorming ideas with my father regarding the best approaches to succeed. We concluded that starting a GoFundMe and sending out emails to the friends and families from my younger brother’s middle school would be a good test-run. I wrote a lot of emails in the coming weeks, and we received a steady flow of responses and contributions.

After spending several weeks fundraising through GoFundMe, I began to realize that a majority of the contributions were smaller than I had anticipated. In order to reach my goal, I decided to strategize once more with my father. Together, we decided to create a commitment form with five donation options, where contributors could give a pledge amount without having to enter any credit card information. I also re-drafted my email template to include more extensive information regarding the threats imposed on orangutans by the palm oil industry, and the incredible impact GPOCP has had through their five conservation programs. Lastly, I decided to sell lemonade with the help of my younger brother, and I organized a bake sale at my high school, from which I raised nearly $200.

Alejandro hosts a lemonade stand at his home in San Francisco to raise money for GPOCP.

Upon concluding our next round of email campaigns using the new and improved materials, I noticed that we were now receiving more responses and larger donations. I continued to tweak the form and email templates throughout the next couple of months, and, after many email campaigns, I managed to raise more than $11,000 from GoFundMe and form commitments!

Working with GPOCP has been an incredible opportunity for me to learn about conservation, fundraising, nonprofits, digital media, and communication skills. But, most importantly, it has been an opportunity for me to do a small part in protecting a beautiful animal that has for decades faced the consequences of human greed and corruption. Since I first began my research, it has always broken my heart that the orangutan, an animal so genetically and evolutionarily similar to human beings, was on track to go extinct, and we, humans, are the cause of this.

While I learned a lot from my early work in creating my video, giving presentations, and creating my website, it was fundraising that taught me the most. Working with GPOCP on fundraising was the first time that I was directly involved in the finances of orangutan conservation. Business and conservation are the two largest areas of focus that I hope to explore further during my next four years at Vanderbilt University, where I will begin in the fall.

I am forever grateful to GPOCP for giving me the opportunity to contribute to such an incredible organization. I would especially like to thank my supervisor, Natalie Robinson, for being so helpful and kind to me throughout the process of fundraising and other projects.