Emma Freedman: Saving the Orangutans
By Bhavani Prakash
Emma is only 12 years old, but age is no excuse for the visionary girl from Corralitos, California to champion a cause she ardently believes in – that of saving the orangutans. We were touched and inspired by her passion after from her recent trip to Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia where she presented a US $1000 cheque to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. She had been raising these funds over the last two years, but as she says, this is just the beginning of her journey towards her noble goal.
Emma’s interview shows that the voice of a child can teach us much more about courage, dedication and the impact of human action than weighty tomes and erudite analyses.
EWTT: Tell us about yourself.
Emma: My name is Emma Freedman. I’m 12 years old. I’m in 7th Grade and I am home-schooled. I have an unusual education right now, as my family goes on a lot of trips. So 2 years ago, when we were going on a trip to Borneo, I got to visit a rehabilitation centre for orangutans. I learnt about how they are in danger of becoming extinct in a couple of years if they don’t get help. My brother Max and I were so touched by how graceful and human-like they are. We felt that it wasn’t fair that they didn’t have a good chance of survival. We needed to help them. When I came back home, I told all my friends about how we needed to help save the orangutans.
EWTT: Tell us more about your first encounter with orangutans?
Emma: The first time I saw orangutans was two years ago in Borneo. I saw several young orangutans, they played with each other a lot. It was funny because they interacted with each other like human kids interact with each other, like by tumbling around. I also was getting into photography and one of the interesting things was watching them when they came to the feeding platform. It was so much to take in. When I took pictures of them, I realised how much expression they showed on their faces, and how the light catches in their eyes like they do in ours. They react to each other like humans do. We share so much. Even their name, ‘orang-utan’ means ‘man of the forest’. They really deserve to have their home.
EWTT: What do you think is the biggest threat to the survival of orangutans?
Emma: The biggest issue for them is that their habitat is being destroyed, and they live in the rainforest. The rainforests right now are being destroyed to make way for palm plantations, for palm oil. One of the problems is something that I actually learnt on this trip, that there is what is called a ‘corridor of life.’ Some groups of orangutans that still remain are on these pockets of the jungle. There are palm plantations built out to the edge on one side, and the Kinabatangan river the other. But the river is eroding the corridor. The habitats of the orangutans are getting smaller and smaller. So the deforestation and river are taking them away. It’s important for groups of orangutans to breed with each other, but right now the jungle is getting cut off into smaller pockets and they can’t connect with each other any more.
EWTT: How did you feel when you learnt about how rainforests and the orangutans are disappearing during that first trip two years ago?
Emma: We got to see the orangutans for one day during our first trip, and I don’t think I had ever thought very much about animals and how their habitats are being destroyed. I was kind of shocked, and also scared for them, especially because they really are depending on us and because we have the power to take their habitat away. We also have the power to save them. I think I felt like I was needed for something; I was needed to help save them. It wasn’t even specifically me, but I just realised that everyone can help, everyone can do something important for them.
But I was also angry, and now that I think about it, I was even blocking myself from having ideas because I was listening to the anger. I was so angry at Malaysian people for planting palm plantations, I was angry at chocolate companies for buying palm oil, I was angry at people for buying chocolate. Then I realised that the anger wasn’t really getting me anywhere. Once I listened to myself, I made the decision to step through the door, and accept that saving the orangutans was important to me, I directed my anger on what I could do, and maybe I even felt the best I had ever felt in my whole life.
EWTT: At what point did you feel that anger and transformed into action?
Patty Freedman (Emma’s mom) explained: We were on a 4 day visit at that time. We went up river driving 2 ½ hours in the van and we saw nothing but palm plantations. On the way back, we saw orangutans again, and I think something changed for her. Then later we were staying at a hotel where a lot of the researchers were also having lunch. We felt like we were in the right place at the right time.
Emma: We would see the orangutans in the morning, and the middle part of the day, we would interview researchers. I would sit and write down a whole lot of ideas. They came pouring out of me. It was such a sudden change. As soon as I saw the orangutans again, I wanted to do something right then. I wanted to help save them.
All evening, we (my brother Max and I) were writing down ideas and then later while my parents were trying to put us to bed, I was still writing down ideas. And then I had even more ideas, and they kept trying to make us go to sleep. And then just before sleeping I said to my dad, “Just one more thing, thank you for taking me seriously.”
It was really important to me that I knew I found something important, I found an opportunity to help, to make a difference in the world, and I was so happy that they were supporting me.
EWTT: That is lovely. You’ve got really wonderful parents. Tell us the things you’ve been doing for the orangutans over the last 2 years back home in California?
Emma: In the past 2 years, I have raised a thousand dollars – mostly I’ve done bake sales and lemonade sales with my friends. We’ve also made and sold stuffed animals, of orangutans from recycled sweaters.
Patty: She sold jam as well. Every time there was an opportunity, and this was what was so interesting, the cause was always on top of her mind. She’d keep asking, “what can I do, how could this connect with the orangutans?”
Emma: Another thing is that when I’m working on this project to save the orangutans, since I’m home-schooled, I can focus on one big project and nothing else for a day. Also when I’m working on this project, there are so many things involved in it, such as science and writing and art, and anything I want to weave into it.
Every year I do a science project which has to do with my interests. This year, I thought it would be great if I could involve it with my orangutan project, because I’m always looking for new opportunities to raise awareness about orangutans. I tested the water in the Kinanbatangan river, so when I present my science project, I will raise awareness about how the palm plantations affect the river. Two years ago, at our county fair, I made a public exhibit about the orangutans, and put all the letters I had written to companies and displayed the orangutan stuffed animals I had SEWN, and also lots of information for people to read about the orangutans. About 10,000 people came to the fair.
It was really exciting for me because I got the highest prize at the county fair, but the important part for me was that even the judges were paying attention, and they learnt about the orangutans.
EWTT: Tell us about your recent trip this week to Borneo where you actually handed in your cheque from the funds you’ve been collecting through all your hard work. Your dad mentioned it was a difficult journey.
Patty : We camped near Kinanbatangan river for four days, there was no running water, no electricity and so it was very challenging – we had very little sleep and very little to eat.
Emma: One of the most important things about the trip was that I paid for us (my mom and my brother Max) to go to Borneo from my pocket money, because I wanted to go back and see the orangutans. I realise now that I was almost a little bit worried that I would be disappointed, but instead it was even better because it was really worth it. We didn’t even get to go for very many days, but one day that we went, I got to see what success was for this orangutan centre. There were two orang-utans that were orphans, and the centre had raised them and released them in the wild, and now these two orangutans both had babies. They were so cute.
EWTT: How would you tell other children and grownups for that matter to take action?
Emma: Really, all they need to do is learn about the destruction that’s going on. Right now, a lot of people don’t even know about or think about the orangutans, like I didn’t before I went to see them.
The important thing is to reduce the demand for palm oil, to read labels and avoid products which contain palm oil.
EWTT: What do you plan to do next?
Emma: I made this new goal. I want to become a child ambassador for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre that I visited in Borneo. I may be able to write something for their newsletter and inspire other kids. That’s really important because I know that my generation is the tipping point for the orangutans. It’s now more important than ever to teach other kids about how they need our help, because they deserve more of a chance. They are so much like humans, except they can’t speak, so it’s important for me to speak for them, and for all of you to speak for them too.
To join Emma in her cause of raising awarness for the Orangutans, please contact her through helpborneo[at]gmail.com
You may also check out her website at Jungle Heroes.org
To help the orangutans that Emma visited in Sepilok, Borneo, please make donations to the UK based Orangutan Appeal
About the Interviewer:
Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk. She discovered her passion and sense of urgency for raising awareness about the environment when she first learnt about the fate of rainforests of the world and vanishing species like the orangutans, as a volunteer guide at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. That led to the creation of this website.
Further links you may be interested in:
Red Suitcase: Kinabatangan Tribulations
Short URL: http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/?p=9178
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