“Diversity is our strength, unity is our power”: Viewing Pride through the Lens of Earth’s Biodiversity

 As Pride Month comes to an end, we are honored to share with you the following guest blog by Marlon Reis, the First Gentleman of Colorado. He is a tireless advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as for wildlife and animals of all kinds. We are proud to have him as an ally and friend.


As a species, humanity has—in great measure—sought to define the parameters of the world we share. These efforts to more narrowly define one’s lived experience (like so many things) is not so much a conscious effort to marginalize as it is a means of processing the information overload with which each of us struggles on a daily basis. The more we learn about the world beyond our backyards, the more difficult it becomes for us to reconcile our own experiences with others. But, to quote one of my heroes—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—“Diversity is our strength, unity is our power”. 

Indeed, strength is a quality every living creature depends upon to survive in what is  often a hostile world. The strength we develop as individuals is as varied as the circumstances we face. And each of us is called upon to be strong when we encounter systems built on the idea of majority rule. 

It is hard to be oneself when the society we keep dictates right and wrong, just and unjust. Without fail, our social order urges us to the conclusion that to be oneself—to celebrate one’s diversity—is acceptable only so long as it does not undermine the end-goal of assimilation into a world ‘outside’ nature.

Yet diversity is the natural order of life. And our universe is beautiful not because it is a pattern endlessly repeating, but because it is a tapestry with mysteries still unsolved, and the ‘dark matter’ of what we have yet to discover.

Our will to live depends upon knowing that however hard yesterday might have been, today is a fresh start. 

Celebrating our diversity is an affirmation that we do not exist outside of nature, but that we are very much of a piece with it. Until we unify in recognition that diversity is our strength, individuality remains a mark against anyone—human or nonhuman—who is unwilling to suppress one’s identity in order to be part of the ‘in-crowd’. 

Equality can and must be achieved by recognizing that what we share is our diversity, and that when we appreciate one another as individuals, we are empowered because we are aligned with nature.

This Pride Month—more than half a century since the dawn of the modern fight for LGBTQ+ equality—we have lessons to learn from the biodiversity that surrounds us on Planet Earth.

There is much to admire when one takes time to study the seeming chaos of ecosystems. The closer one looks, the more marvelously clear it becomes that each and every plant and animal has a role to play. In place of what we expect to be disorganized, we find that order is not a series of straight lines and right angles, but rather puzzle pieces that dovetail to create a miraculous and airtight ‘whole’. 

Unlike the concrete jungles in which so many among us spend our days wondering why diversity is viewed as a negative, we can take solace in knowing that in nature, it is a sign of balance. The concept of ‘waste’ is nonexistent in nature, because every living creature has something to contribute.

And when we see that diversity is what makes ecosystems strong, we realize that waste is a byproduct of inequality; the consequence of failing to see that things work best when we value our differences and unite as one.

So often, we are taught to believe that the systems built by those who came before us somehow improve upon nature’s capacity to provide us what we need to live. But how can that be true when so many are struggling to get ahead?  The building blocks of life, like fresh water to drink, and clean air to breathe, are plentiful, yet not accessible to all. 

In my heart of hearts, I believe that humanity overcomplicates what is simple and true. And while we argue ad infinitum about the laws and  governance that lead to inequality, we learn more about fairness and justice in the awe-inspiring diversity of a coral reef, or the countless lives that live in symbiosis on a single tree in the Amazon Rainforest.

In human society, we struggle with ageism and the fallacy that there comes a time when we are too old to be useful, and we cease to be relevant.

But in nature, old growth forests play host to a dazzling variety of lifeforms. More than the saplings, they sequester and hold fast to greater amounts of carbon dioxide, relieving our skies of human-made pollution. Old growth forests also stand guard against wildfires that would consume younger trees, effectively ensuring a vital future for new generations of plants and animals to live and thrive.

One wonders how communities, nations, our world–indeed, humanity itself–will ever solve the question of how to live together in peace and mutual respect?

But the answer is there if we are willing to look: “Diversity is our strength, unity is our power.”

Photo credit Flickr user albirder

Pride Month, LGBTQ+ and the Environmental Movement

“A fabulous planet is the fundamental right of everyone in our shared environment. Systems that strip the natural diversity from society and the earth must be toppled so that every expression of humanity, and all species, can thrive.” – Gerod Rody, Founder and President Emeritus of OUT for Sustainability

This year is the 50th anniversary of Pride Month. Pride began in 1970, in recognition of the Stonewall Uprising, and recalled the uprising’s protest against discriminatory laws, social treatment, and policing while calling for justice and equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. Fast forward to June 2020, when, just over a week ago, the Supreme Court delivered a historic ruling extending protections from workplace discrimination to LGBTQ+ people. Yet despite the passage of half a century since Stonewall, and victories including marriage recognition and protections against discrimination, the resilient LGBTQ+ community still experiences inequality in an array of areas. 

The LGBTQ+ movement is intersectional. People in the community represent a vast cross-section of races and socio-economic classes. LTBTQ+ black and brown people in particular experience amplified discrimination, as both racial and sexual minorities. This blog will touch on issues related to environmental justice and ok inclusion in the environmental movement. At the end of the blog is a short list, a starting point, of intersectional resources to get connected to organizations and information. Helping increase awareness, visibility, and action on these interwoven issues will strengthen the effort to restore biodiversity and support environmental justice for the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups.  And there is so much more to examine and explore than this short text can cover. This blog is an invitation to begin, continue, deepen, and share your exploration of these issues.

The conservation movement is historically grounded as a movement centered on the participation of white, economically advantaged individuals. Yet minorities, including the LGBTQ+  community, are underrepresented in the movement’s systems and structures  – and simultaneously at the leading edge of the experience of environmental harms. One example where this inequity plays out is access to clean air.  It’s well documented that non-white people bear disproportionate health impacts from exposure to air pollution, due to racial segregation, proximity to pollution sources and other factors. People who identify as LGBTQ+ are likewise impacted by poor air quality, with air-quality related cancer rates at 12.3% higher and respiratory risks from exposure to hazardous air pollutants at 23.8% greater than that of heterosexuals.   

When it comes to education and professional engagement with STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) individuals identifying as LGBTQ+ describe experiences of discrimination. One survey of 37 transgender physics professionals and students found that more than half of respondents experienced exclusionary treatment and harassment in school or at work. Similarly, among LGBTQ+ chemists, 44% of 270 study respondents described that harassment, intimidation, or exclusionary practices were and are experienced in their careers. The culture of environmental groups is likewise described by LGBTQ+  environmental professionals as ‘alienating’. Yet, the LGBTQ+ community expresses higher concern for environmental issues, responding at a 20% higher rate than heterosexuals when it comes to concern for the ‘current state and future of the environment’. These patterns clearly show a need to listen to and support the LGBTQ+ community and for their leadership to inform and change how the environmental profession and environmental organizations create cultures of inclusivity.

The organizations listed below are re-envisioning how the LGBTQ+ community participates in biodiversity conservation; the resources provide educational information and avenues to support this intersectional movement. These are only a small sampling of the amazing work being done and groups centering environmental activism within the LGBTQ community. The discipline of Queer Ecology asserts that the binary model separating humans from nature is a false proposition, expressing instead that the more-than-human world is inherently and extrordinarily diverse. The natural world is dynamic, mysterious, humbling, complex and contradictory.   Recognizing a richer and deeper understanding of the ecological diversity of non-human systems will support our ability to address new solutions to the multiple environmental crises we are facing. Learning from the leadership of LQBTQ+ voices, experiences, and communities in the environmental movement is an essential part of the equation. Let’s get started by checking out these amazing groups and resources!

LGBTQ+ Environmental Organizations:

Out for Sustainability: LGBTQ organization for the social and physical environment

O4S runs a number of initiatives including Greener Pride: Working toward carbon-neutral, waste free Pride celebrations

Venture Out Project: Bringing together queer people to experience wilderness

Queer Nature: Ecological awarness and place based skills for healing marginalized populations

Out There Adventures: Empowering queer youth to connect with the natural world

LGBTQ Outdoor Summit: opportunity for conservation leaders, the outdoor recreation community, and environmental groups to connect around the status of the LGBTQ community and the outdoors

500 Queer Scientists: Visibility platform for LGBTQ+ and allies working in STEM

The Institute of Queer Ecology

Intersectional Resources  

Being Queer in the Jungle: The Unique Challenges of LGBTQ Scientists Working in the Field

Our Climate Voices

Transgender Rights Climate Intersectionality

What the Queer Community Brings to the Fight for Climate Justice

How to Support Black Trans People Now

Women, LGBTQ and People of Color Adapt to Climate Change

Diversity: Pride in Science


Graphic credit

The “What’s In My Backyard?” Challenge

For the 15th anniversary of Endangered Species Day, the Endangered Species Coalition is inviting everyone we know to participate in a challenge: get outdoors and identify as many species as you can in your own backyard, balcony, courtyard, or neighborhood park! Here are just a few reasons to join this exciting event celebrating the biodiversity all around us:

  • Spend time outside and connect with nature.
  • Learn more about species in your local area and how to identify them.
  • Collect data that helps scientists and researchers.
  • Engage in ES Day in a way that’s fun and safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Step 1

Create an account with iNaturalist, if you don’t already have one.

  1. Go to
  2. Fill out your information to create a new account.
  3. Please note that you must be 13 years or older to create your own iNaturalist account. Children under 13 can participate in this event by partnering with a parent, guardian, or other adult; or parents can create accounts for minors using this process.

Step 2

Download the iNaturalist app on your phone or tablet.

You can find the iNaturalist app for Android products through Google Play, and iNaturalist app for Apple products through the App Store. Once you’ve downloaded the app, log in to your iNaturalist account.

Step 3

Join our Endangered Species Day 2020 project!

  1. Open the app and click More in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen.
  2. Click Projects.
  3. Search for “Endangered Species Day 2020.”
  4. Click Join.

Step 4

Learn to use iNaturalist.

Use these videos and written instructions to learn all about how to use iNaturalist.

Tutorial Video:

Additional Tips Video:

Written Guide:

Important note: iNaturalist focuses on wild species, so please be careful to mark any captive or cultivated species, like pets or cultivated garden plants, as “Captive / Cultivated” in the app.

Step 5

Get out and observe!

There are creatures to be found everywhere, from your own backyard, balcony, or courtyard, to a neighborhood park. On Saturday, May 16th, 2020, we’re challenging you to go out and find as many creatures as you can! Just be sure to pick a place where you can maintain social distancing and stay safe in accordance with the guidelines of the CDC and your home state.

Some of the easiest creatures to find and photograph are bugs, mushrooms, and plants, but depending on where you live, you may also be able get photos of birds, amphibians and reptiles, fish, and small mammals like squirrels. Let’s see how many species we can identify around the world in one day!

Step 6

Share your observations to make an impact

With the growing threat of the extinction crisis, it is more important than ever that we protect wildlife species and their habitat. Help us raise awareness of this issue and advocate for strong wildlife protections using your observations!

Post a photo of one species you identified on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and be sure to use the hashtag #EndangeredSpeciesDay in your post. This helps raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity and the need to protect it. See a sample Tweet to the right.

Increase habitat for wildlife species by planting a pollinator garden. A pollinator garden has native flowers and grasses that provide critical food and habitat for bees, butterflies, and other species. You can learn more about pollinator gardens from the Xerces Society by clicking here, and more about native plants in your region by clicking here. Maybe if you plant a pollinator garden this year, you’ll see more species in your yard by next year!

Questions? Contact Sarah Starman at

Get outside for Endangered Species Day with our identification challenge!

Are you looking for reasons to get outdoors and spend time connecting with nature? If so, we’ve got a great activity for you! 

Join the Endangered Species Coalition for our “What’s In My Backyard?” species identification challenge

As you may know, this Friday is the 15th annual Endangered Species Day. Endangered Species Day is an opportunity for people of all ages to celebrate and learn about wildlife species and how to protect them. 

This year, we’re inviting everyone we know to participate in our special “What’s In My Backyard?” species identification challenge for Endangered Species Day. All you have to do is spend time Saturday, May 16th outside in your yard, courtyard, or local park learning about plant, animal, and fungus species in your area. This is a great way for people of all ages to spend time outdoors, but still maintain social distancing. 

Learn more about how to participate with our step-by-step guide to being part of the “What’s In My Backyard?” challenge. 

Don’t worry – you don’t need to be an expert to join the challenge. The free phone app iNaturalist, which you’ll use to participate, will identify all of the species for you. All you have to do is take photos, and iNaturalist will take care of the rest. This is a great way for kids or adults to learn more about the local creatures that are all around you. And our step-by-step guide to participating in the challenge will walk you through everything, from downloading the app to getting outdoors on May 16th. 

Find out how to be part of this international outdoor event today. 

There are other ways to participate in Endangered Species Day, too! If you’re still looking for ways to celebrate this week, check out our film screening event or these other ways to engage

Thank you for helping us protect vulnerable species and the habitat they rely on.

Save your virtual seat at our Endangered Species Day film screening!

On Friday, May 15th, which is the 15th annual Endangered Species Day, we’re hosting an online film screening of Racing ExtinctionRacing Extinction is a fast-paced, informative documentary about the role that humans play in the loss of Earth’s biodiversity. It shines a spotlight on the serious threat of wildlife trafficking around the world, and what we need to do to stop it.

After the film, we’re also holding a live Q&A session with the Racing Extinction filmmaking team. Learn more about what went on behind the scenes from director Louie Psihoyos, photographer Shawn Heinrichs, and race car driver Leilani Munter.

RSVP today for the screening and live Q&A with the film team.

Given that the global coronavirus pandemic likely originated from the illegal wildlife trade, it is more important than ever that we understand the threat posed by wildlife trafficking. Racing Extinction shows the devastating impacts of the illegal wildlife trade on biodiversity, but also shows us how the courage to speak out about this issue can make a difference. In these challenging times, we need that kind of courage more than ever.

Join us at our virtual Racing Extinction screening for Endangered Species Day 2020.

You can also participate in Endangered Species Day in a variety of other ways, including by joining the What’s in My Backyard? Outdoor species identification challenge on May 16th. Learn more about this activity and more on our website,

Thank you for your support and for standing up for wildlife. We look forward to celebrating with you on Endangered Species Day!

Art and Advocacy in Action

At the Endangered Species Coalition, we know art is a powerful medium for change. We host an annual Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest, and each year we get tons of amazing submissions from young people, grades K – 12, from across the country. In 2020, we had nearly 1,400 contest entrants, reflecting young people’s commitment to using artwork to express their support for endangered species conservation. 

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Our 2020 grand-prize winner, Isis Stevens, is a 14-year-old artist from Denver, CO, and a stunning example of art in action. Recently, Endangered Species Coalition organizers across the country held virtual in-district meetings. Each April, Congressional members leave our Nation’s Capitol and head home to their districts in their states. This is a great time to visit with our elected officials, educate them on endangered species issues, and ask them to support laws to protect them and their habitats.

These meetings are so important – especially now. COVID-19 is keeping so many of us away from our families, our work, and our friends. This is a scary and unpredictable time. But now is not the time to sit back, even though many of us are stuck at home. And we need our elected officials to champion innovative solutions for the communities and habitats that need it most.

So last week, at our in-district meetings with some of Colorado’s members of Congress, I was lucky enough to be accompanied by Isis. As a future voter, she used her voice to advocate for wildlife –  bravely and passionately. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up while she was speaking with a staff member from Congresswoman DeGette’s office – because I did. 

Our virtual in-district meetings were so powerful. To give you a sense, we want to share Isis’s statement that she gave during our meetings. She describes her winning art piece and gives our Congressional leaders some words of warning, plus a message of hope (if action is taken).

I created this piece to bring light to the endangerment of Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, their importance in our ecosystems, as well as hope for a brighter future. The base of the painting depicts the earth, oceans black with pollution and land dark without forests, plants, habitats, animals, and pollinators, such as the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.

From some of the earth’s largest beings, to the tiniest ones that hold our ecosystems together, currently almost 200,000 of our earth’s species are endangered, while many more are threatened, a large portion of which are insects. Ever since I was little, I have absolutely loved insects, specifically butterflies and bees. Both happen to be the earth’s two main pollinators that are both currently endangered or threatened. They are in this state due to impact from our most careless and destructive everyday actions, such as habitat destruction and land loss due to agriculture, factory farming and urban developments, as well as harsh pesticide use, bacterial infections, and the rapidly growing effects of climate change. 

In addition to acknowledging the role insects and pollinators play in supporting our earth’s ecosystems, it is also important to see the role they play in many people’s cultures and art, such as mine. Since the beginning of time, people have been using these tiny creatures to symbolize beauty, change, happiness, death, rebirth, and are seen by many as precious beings that carry the souls of past ancestors and loved ones. Everywhere you turn, people are using butterflies and bees as symbolism and to bring beauty and nature to art, literature, and music of all kinds. So if pollinators seemed to hold such a beautiful source of symbolism in our lives, why aren’t we frantically working to protect these precious creatures? 

Above the dark earth stands a figure of a little girl, surrounded by honeycomb. Inside of her eyes shines a brighter, healthier earth. She is holding out her hands full of soil, in both desperation and hope by providing the bees with a healthy and safe home. She is not only a representation of our youth but also a form of mother nature, looking down on the destruction we have caused. Around her flies a swarm of Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, attracted by the flowers that are growing from the soil in her hands. The flowers she holds are Purple Prairie Clovers, one of many plant species dependent on pollination by the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. Alongside bees, butterflies are one of the world’s most important pollinators, with over 75% of living plants dependent on them. 

This piece is meant to spark recognition of the fragile state of one endangered species that plays a crucial role in the survival of our ecosystems, as well as to depict a way in which we can help to bring hope through the eyes of youth. 

The earth and these species were here long before we were and will hopefully be here long after we pass. Unfortunately, by the time I am your age, our earth’s pollinators could become completely extinct. This idea is absolutely terrifying. The thought of having to live in a world where the majority of our vegetation has lost life from their pollinators, as well as to think that these beautiful creatures will never be seen by my children, is devastating. So I am here now, asking you through my art and my voice to acknowledge their importance in everything from our smallest plants and insects, to our food industry and everyday lives. I am asking you to take advantage of your privilege in having a position of power, to do what many cannot, and take a stand to help save our earth’s endangered species. 

After hearing Isis’s story, Kaila Hood, Constituent Services Representative at Congresswoman Diana DeGette’s office, said, “We at the Congresswoman’s office are always happy to meet with our constituents to discuss issues impacting our community. It is powerful to hear constituent stories, but it was especially moving to see Isis’s artwork during our meeting last week. Her artwork really brought home how critical it is to protect our pollinators. We can’t wait until Isis is in high school and can participate in our Congressional Art Competition! She is a gifted artist and storyteller.”

As the winner of our 2020 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest, Isis is using her voice and her art to protect wildlife and endangered species. We can all follow her example by asking Congress to pass legislation to restore the Endangered Species Act.

Thank you for your commitment to wildlife and wild places!

Winners of 2020 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest Announced

WASHINGTON, DC – The Endangered Species Coalition proudly announced the winners of the 2020 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest, including the grand prize winner, Isis Stevens, a Englewood, Colorado 14-year old.

The contest was an integral part of the 15th annual national Endangered Species Day, which occurs this year on Friday, May 15. The art contest engages school children in grades K-12 in expressing their appreciation for our nation’s most imperiled wildlife, and promotes national awareness of the importance of saving endangered species. The winning art entries can be viewed online.
“We owe it to this generation of children to pass down healthy ecosystems brimming with wildlife,” said Leda Huta, Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “Every year, their artwork demonstrates how deeply they feel for nature and all of its wondrous creatures – large and small.”

Contest winners were selected by a panel of eight artists, photographers and conservationists, including Andrew Zuckerman, a noted wildlife photographer, filmmaker, David Littschwager, a freelance photographer and regular contributor to National Geographic Magazine, as well as Susan Middletown, a photographer who has collaborated with Littschwager and whose own work has been published in four books, and Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Institution.

“Through the visual arts, I try to celebrate our vanishing species, and I am glad to be joined by these inspiring young artists,” said wildlife photographer Andrew Zuckerman. “I hope these artists and their images will encourage action to protect rare and endangered species for future generations.”

The 2020 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest winners are: 

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee
Grand Prize: Isis Stevens  (age 14), Englewood, CO

Wood Bison

Runner Up: Phoebe Miler  (age 16), Columbus, OH

First Place Winners in Grade Categories:

Grades K-2: Jiahao Jasper Truong (age 6), Walnut, CA
Grades 3-5: Sara Byun  (age 11), Brisbane, CA
Grades 6-8: Sophia Lynn Findley  (age 14), Kapolei, HI
Grades 9-12: Chang (Annie) Bian  (age 14), San Diego, CA

The grand prize winner, Stevens, will receive a special art lesson from a professional wildlife artist and $100 worth of art supplies of their choice.

Endangered Species Day was first proclaimed by the United States Congress in 2006. It is a celebration of the nation’s wildlife and wild places and is an opportunity for people to learn about the importance of protecting endangered species, as well as everyday actions they can take to help protect them.

Across the country, organizations hold special events to celebrate Endangered Species Day each year on or around the third Friday in May. For more information about the annual art contest, winners and Endangered Species Day, visit



Endangered Species Day is May 15th!

Spring 2020 is a season of milestones for protecting our environment and wildlife. Not only is this week the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but we’re also rapidly approaching the 15th anniversary of Endangered Species Day.

Endangered Species Day is an opportunity for people of all ages to celebrate and learn about endangered species and how to protect them. Normally, hundreds of public events are held across the world for Endangered Species Day. This year, due to the global coronavirus crisis, this won’t be possible. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to celebrate wildlife!

Here’s what the Endangered Species Coalition is doing to speak out against extinction on the 15th annual Endangered Species Day:

Story Time: Every morning Monday, May 11th through Friday, May 15th, we’ll be reading aloud a children’s book featuring endangered species. We’ll be reading these fun and educational stories live on our Facebook page. Tune in by visiting our Facebook page at 9am Pacific Time / 12pm Eastern Time each day.

Racing Extinction Screening: On Friday, May 15th, we’re offering people the opportunity to watch the intense, informative documentary Racing Extinction online, and participate in a live Q&A afterwards with the filmmakers. To find out more details and get access to this film screening event, RSVP here.

Get outdoors through our all-day What’s In My Backyard? species identification challenge. On Saturday, May 16th, people around the world will use the free app iNaturalist to take photos and identify local species. This is a great activity for adults or families who want to get out into nature and learn more about the wildlife right in your backyard. Read full instructions for how to participate here.

Endangered Species Day is a chance to celebrate the biodiversity all around us and remember why we must constantly strive to protect our most cherished wildlife species and their habitat. Join one or all of Endangered Species Day activities to be a part of this exciting global event.

Semi-finalist Entries Chosen in 2020 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest

The 2020 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest generated close to 1,400 entries from students around the United States! A panel of judges has finished the initial and very difficult task of choosing ten semi-finalist entries per grade category. 

The gallery of the 40 selected semi-finalist images across all grade levels K-12 can be seen here.

Grades K-2 Semifinalists are here.

Grades 3-5 Semifinalists are here.

Grades 6-8 Semifinalists are here.

Grades 9-12 Semifinalists are here.

We thank everyone who participated in this year’s contest. The submissions from around the country represented a wide variety of endangered plants and animals and demonstrate the continued interest and dedication to conserving our world’s imperiled species. 

The next step is for another panel of judges to choose one winning entry from each of the grade categories and a grand prize winner. Look for the announcement of the contest winners in April!

Kutai National Park: Welcome to the Jungle

This post is a part 2 of a 4-part guest series by Sherri Harvey.


After a twenty-minute boat ride down the Sangatta River, we followed our jungle-trekking guides up a steep river embankment to a sign that read “Welcome to the Jungle.” Since Axel Rose from Guns and Roses is from my home state of Indiana, I couldn’t help but hear the song  in my head, but soon enough, the sounds of the jungle took over. As we made our way in, I was serenaded by a concert of humming, buzzing, and chirping by frogs, cicadas, monkeys, and birds. The combination of decaying vegetation, soil, wood, leaves, mushrooms and orchids filled my nose and provided a saturated buffet for the pollinators like moths, bats, butterflies, bees, and ants. As I walked, I let my fingertips feel the leaves as though I might be able to learn jungle secrets by touch alone. We headed along a wooden boardwalk through old national park buildings, and eventually, out into the thick lowland tropical rainforest. This was my first rainforest jungle trek, and I was happily drenched and soggy without having to run three miles for the sweat. 

Boats at rest on island in river

Photo: Sherri Harvey

We were trekking through the Kutai National Park looking for wild orangutans. The trip required some effort to get here and a commitment to the cause. Located on the east coast of Borneo Island, in the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia, hiking in Kutai took six hours on a bus driving from Samarinda to Sangata. Our presence here also demanded both a permit and knowledgeable local guides. This trip was a possibility for our group only because of Orangutan Odysseys. Garry Sundin and his team of environmentalists, locals, and experts had provided his guests, my fellow trekkers, with this jungle tour that also required a target fundraising goal. The money then supported The Orangutan Project that aims to fight rainforest destruction as a proposed solution to climate change, habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, and cultural preservation. The founder, Leif Cocks, primatology expert and trip host, and our co-host, Hardi Baktiantoro, Founder of the Center for Orangutan Protection  joined us as well. Collectively, their mission is to protect the orangutan habit through environmental sustainability and responsible tourism, and we were all here to figure out how we could contribute to the cause as we search for orangutans, from the Malay origin of orang (person) and hutan (forest). It takes a team of people like this working around the clock to look for sustainable solutions for orangutan habitat and forest protection, and this extraordinary team was showing us what it looks like on the front line of the fight.

Photo: Sherri Harvey

As we started into the heart of the forest, Hardi picked up a roly-poly, or wood shrimp and introduced me to him. Although people refer to the roly-polys as bugs, they are not insects. They are wingless, oval crustaceans — land-dwelling relatives of lobsters and crabs. Hardi told me a story about how the local Dayak had been rumored to watch orangutans eat them when they had  a toothache. Supposedly, as the Dayak watched the orangutans, they learned about homeopathic medicinal purposes of the crustacean by studying orangutan behavior.

As we continued on, I was in awe of how well our guides knew the forest. Ozzy veered off our hidden trail and walked on the sides of it looking for orangutan signs. Ivend held ginormous red ants and worms in his hands to show us their intricate markings. Hardi picked up a half-eaten berry and announced that the orangutans had recently been here. 

As we walked, our expert guides pointed out the things a life within this forest had taught them. Orangutan nests sat in clumps of leaves high above. We learned that these arboreal mammals bend smaller, leafy branches onto a foundation that serves as a nest and then braid the tips of branches into the heap to increase stability since they spend most of their time in trees. As I scanned the tops in earnest desperation for a sighting, I saw only clumps of thick green that sunlight could not penetrate, and I would not have known it was an orangutan nest if I were out here by myself. Without the careful eyes of the natives, I would have missed this detail. Additionally, the verdant growth was so thick that if I were to get lost, there was no way I would have found my way out.

About an hour in, we heard, by radio that there was an orangutan high in the trees. We walked slowly, heads pointed toward the sky. We were advised that the orangutans knew we were there, even if we couldn’t see them. We saw the evidence.

Photo: Sherri Harvey

As we hiked, we stopped to photograph things we wouldn’t see at home…different mushrooms, a lantern moth, twisty vines with growth that looked like potatoes, insects the size of our fists, and all of us were filled with the wonder of childhood delight. Seeing with new eyes and open hearts, and an empathetic nature, was essential for the trip and since we were all here for the common goal of orangutan trekking. Even though we were strangers, we were united by a love for the great outdoors, a desire to do something for our planet, and a commitment to travel halfway across the world to explore options for making a difference in saving not only orangutans, but also the forest, the native land, and really, the world.

Photo: Sherri Harvey

After a few hours, we neared the Ranger Station where Orangutan Odysseys had arranged lunch to be served by the locals for us, and we were hot, sweaty, tired, hungry and muddy. I was so happy to see our lunch spot to rest for a bit. As we all sang a cheer to be back, we were immediately informed that some of the locals had seen the orangutans pass through. So even though we could smell the delicious food, we had to walk straight through the temptation and keep going. On we went in search of orangutans.

After another hour, we called it time to head back to eat. At lunch, Leif told us what tracking orangutans entailed: lying on the ground for hours on end and looking up to the trees, sometimes without a citing. We also learned that in Kutai, the estimated number of orangutans was about 600. After a leisurely information session from Leif, we were rested and fueled, ready for more searching and we slipped back into our muddy boots and headed back out in the humid air and cacophonous harmony of the jungle.

Credit Sher Harvey/The Accidental Advocate

Photo: Sherri Harvey

Photo: Sherri Harvey

Placing our feet carefully in wet mud, up and down steep hills and ravines, through and over river crossings, holding on to branches for stability and pushing each other up from behind, we got to know each other pretty well. We were committed to the mission to see more. And when I was filthy and worn out and I thought that  I couldn’t possibly take one more step, someone called out a sighting. 

Leif had spotted the grand old lady high above us. He could tell she was about a fifty-year-old female. Since my orangutan-spotting skills were not yet honed, picking her out from the foliage proved challenging. Even the Aussie environmentalists had a hard time. They ranged in age from twenty-five to mid-sixties, and we all craned our necks and squinted, searching high up to the treetops to spot her. Although we heard her long, powerful arms swinging her and her vice-like hands propelling her from tree to tree, the sun made it hard to see her body distinctly. We watched her dark mass moving above us for a good half an hour as our guides continued to point, but she didn’t make it easy on us untrained orangutan-watchers. 

Orangutan in tree

Photo: Wendy Futschik

As we sat under the soft blanket of jungle canopy to watch her before making our way back into the canoes, then onto the bus, to finally the hotel to take a well-earned shower, we all shared a quiet celebration for bearing witness to her. I didn’t want to leave her—I could have sat all day watching her sit still high above me, sharing the same air and same love of the trees that serve humanity so well. But we had a few hours of trekking to make it out of the jungle before dark.

Orangutan in tree looking down

Photo: Wendy Futschik

As we left her, I could feel that all of us had been touched by her.  I could see from my new friends’ smiles that we were all tickled to have spotted her. For me, the sum of the experience, orangutans, butterflies, mushrooms, even the mosquitoes, had deepened my connection to the wild heart of life. Seeing this old magical girl in her habitat, roaming freely in the place she called home represented hope for the future of her species. She got me thinking about what I can do from my home in California to help not only save her, but also to save her habitat from the destructive forces working to profit from the commodification of the rainforest. 

After all, we are all in this great big world together, and if we want nature to continue serving us, we need to find a way to serve it better.


Sher Harvey/The Accidental Advocate