Leif Cocks’ postgraduate studies at Curtin have paralleled his passion to save the endangered orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra.
Two years after graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science, Cocks applied for a job at Perth Zoo where he eventually became the orangutan keeper.
It was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the endangered red primates.
“The orangutans liked me and I liked them – I could go inside the enclosure and build up their trust, and not be injured, whereas other keepers couldn’t,” Cocks says.
In the Bahasa language, ‘Orangutan’ means ‘man of the forest’. An adult orangutan has the intelligence of a six-year-old human.
During 12 years as the zoo’s orangutan keeper, Cocks completed a Graduate Diploma in Natural Resources at Curtin – specialising in primate behaviour.
His research led to the redesign of enclosures at the zoo after he discovered primates were far less stressed when they were higher than human eye level.
Cocks’ long association with Curtin’s Department of Environmental Biology culminated in a masters degree after he examined factors affecting the health and wellbeing of captive orangutans.
He found that female orangutans were dying due to faster periods between breeding and that Sumatran and Bornean orangutans – then thought to be the same species – when cross-bred were weaker and dying at a greater rate, suggesting they were different.
“I came to the conclusion that orangutans don’t belong in captivity and cannot survive through the captive breeding programs alone – the only way to ensure their survival was to save them in the wild,” Cocks says.
Spurred into action, he started the Australian Orangutan Project 11 years ago to raise public awareness and money to increase numbers of the endangered species.
Today, only about 6000 Sumatran orangutans are left in the wild.
In a 2006 world-first, Temara – a Sumatran orangutan reared by Cocks at Perth Zoo – was released into the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in central Sumatra.
Bukit Tigapuluh is a 144,000-hectare park protected from poaching and logging and funded by Perth Zoo and the Australian Orangutan Project.
More than 100 Sumatran orangutans now live alongside Temara.
The Australian Orangutan Project has advanced from three volunteers meeting after work at the zoo to a million-dollar-a-year operation.
“It’s an all-consuming thing which might not necessarily bring financial or academic rewards, but the rewards are achieving a higher goal for conservation and animal welfare,” Cocks says.
Photograph: JAMES ROGERS