Garry Sundin: Sydney builder turned Orangutan-saviour

Orangutans are thinking animals” says Garry “... when you look into their eyes, there’s an understanding, an empathy.

They are the most closely related of the great apes to us and their really intelligent. So there’s a saying: 

Give a Gorilla a screwdriver, it will scratch itself; 

Give a Chimpanzee a screwdriver, it will throw it at you;

Give a Bonobo a screwdriver, it will try to have sex; but

Give a screwdriver to an Orangutan … and it will try to escape!”

Garry started life as a building contractor and had nothing to do with tourism until he met Peter Miller and first trekked Kokoda. Garry’s father was a war veteran who finished his service flying biscuit-bombers in Kokoda. Coming here, Garry was able to help build the first eco-toilet, volunteering a further six times to install more, helping protect vital water sources for the local villages. 

Searching for a new cause to support, he met the Camp Leakey Angels and researcher Birute Galdikas. Struck by the team's dedication, the hardships they faced and their resilience in the face of financial, political and environmental hurdles, Garry decided he wanted to help. 

“Unlike here in Australia, they get no government assistance for their work", he says. “But you can’t raise funds without people being able to see things for themselves … and nothing replaces the real-life experience of seeing a wild Orangutan”.  

Since 2009 Garry has been running tours that contribute to funding Orangutan conservation at Camp Leakey and beyond - his team has raised over $700,000 in that time. By supporting the people of the parks who work every day with these amazing animals, they help raise awareness of their plight and inspire people to get more involved - every person gets to Adopt an Orangutan. 

“If I’d remained a building contractor all my life”, says Garry, “I would have given nothing back … this way I have made a contribution to society, the environment and helped save the species that is our closest living relative”.

There is a sincerity you get from people who work hard and care about where they live. This is true for Garry and the people of Camp Leakey. They endure a life without many things we take for granted. The tours give them chance to share their stories, to connect with the outside world (there is no internet) so we learn what a special job they are doing - Garry is struck by their dedication and how they have never given up, against all odds.  

At the end of the day, it’s not all about Orangutans, though you can’t help be enchanted by them and there isn't a better ambassador the forest and our connection to it.

Seeing such an awesome wild animal up close, let alone sharing a moment of empathy that is more human than anything we can imagine from any other animal, compels us to do everything we can for their conservation.

Saving Orangutans, as Garry says, is about saving the rainforest. They are the only tree-living ape and without them, we have no forest, we have no animals and we suffer all the environmental problems that occur - it doesn’t only affect the Indonesians who live there, it affects all of us.

This year from 3-9 December, we’re visiting Camp Leakey with Garry. This is a rare opportunity to see Garry in his favourite habitat, alongside his greatest love - the wild Orangutans that have been saved only by the dedication of Camp Leakey and the help they get from people like Garry and the visitors his team brings here.  

Wildiaries • May 2016