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Interview: Gary Shapiro & The 2023 Pongo Environmental Awards

Gary Shapiro & Princess
Gary Shapiro, President, Orang Utan Republik Foundation and Princess.

1.  Tell us about Orang Utan Republik Foundation and its Pongo Environmental Awards

Established in October 2004 under the name Orang Utan Republik Education Initiative (OUREI), the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF) is dedicated to the long-term survival of Indonesia's critically endangered orangutans. Our commitment is channeled through conservation education, outreach endeavors, and pioneering collaborative initiatives that ignite inspiration and prompt individuals to take meaningful action. In 2015, we broadened our mission by transitioning to become the U.S. chapter of The Orangutan Project. This strategic move allowed us to embrace a significantly larger portfolio of projects aimed at the preservation of orangutans and their natural habitat.

While the original Pongo Awards were created and awarded in 2006 to individuals for supporting the mission of OURF, it was rebranded in 2014 as the Pongo Environmental Awards to broaden its reach and recognize individuals and organizations that have contributed to the improved understanding and appreciation of not just orangutans but endangered species, threatened habitats and ecosystems, and for improving conditions for orangutans and biodiversity globally.

The Pongo Environmental Awards, presented by the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF), have a dual (or twofold) purpose: to raise funds for OURF’s crucial work to save wild, critically endangered orangutans from extinction and to honor those who have made significant contributions to understanding and appreciating orangutans, endangered species, rainforest habitat, and improving conditions for orangutans and other animals.

2.  What is the theme of this year’s Pongo Environmental Awards?

The theme this year is: "Biodiversity Matters- Our LIVES Depend on It!" as the call to protect the various forms of life on our planet is timely, and the need to take action to avert ecosystem collapse can no longer wait. We will celebrate orangutans and biodiversity and learn what OURF and TOP-USA are doing to ensure the long-term survival of biodiversity. 

3.  Who are the recipients of the Pongo Environmental Awards this year?

This year, three new Pongo Environmental Awards will be presented to individuals and organizations for exceptional achievement on behalf of orangutans, biodiversity, and the overall environment. 

This year's honorees include James Balog and his organization Earth Vision Institute for his breathtaking and award-winning photography documenting dramatic changes on our planet; the Acehnese conservation organization Forum Konservasi Leuser (FKL) and organizational leaders including founder Rudy Putra, an accomplished Indonesian conservationist and activist who has been protecting the Leuser Ecosystem and its biodiversity including the orangutan; and Heal the Bay, a local nonprofit that has been at the forefront of protecting and understanding the Santa Monica Bay ecosystem for four decades.

4.  Tell us about world-renowned photographer, filmmaker, scientist, and author James Balog

James Balog
James Balog.

James Balog, an American photographer, filmmaker, scientist, and author, delves into the intricate connection between humanity and the natural world in his body of work. I first encountered his artistry through his ANIMA series, where Balog ingeniously juxtaposed chimpanzees with a diverse array of individuals, capturing a compelling series of portraits. This artwork is a synthesis of various disciplines, drawing inspiration from realms such as the visual arts, environmental philosophy, and Jungian psychology. ANIMA invites viewers to envision a more harmonious and interwoven relationship between humans and the environment, encouraging us to contemplate a healthier coexistence.

Balog served as a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure photographs. His photography has been featured in a wide array of prestigious publications, including National Geographic, The New Yorker, Life, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Audubon, Outside, as well as numerous industry-specific magazines like American Photo, Professional Photographer, and Photo District News. Some of his notable assignments and projects have encompassed documenting the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, capturing the devastating impact of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, chronicling Hurricane Katrina's catastrophic encounter with the U.S. Gulf Coast, and visually documenting the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster.

Balog's work has garnered numerous accolades. In 1996, he achieved a historic milestone by becoming the inaugural photographer entrusted by the U.S. Postal Service to craft an entire collection of postage stamps. His literary contributions encompass seven books, among them "Extreme Ice Now: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report" (2009), "Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest" (2004), and "Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife" (1990), which is renowned for its pioneering approach to nature photography.

He is the founder and director of Earth Vision Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. 

The benefit event, on October 14, 2023, which the public can attend, will feature a rare intimate talk with Balog and an intimate slideshow of his journey around the globe, capturing riveting images of our fragile planet. Building Bridges Art Exchange in the Bergamot Station Art Center in Santa Monica.

Just as with all our honorees, James Balog's name and impressive accomplishments were presented to the OURF nomination committee for a thorough evaluation. His achievements were undeniably outstanding and required no embellishment. Importantly, none of the committee members had any prior personal connections with him. Therefore, we were genuinely delighted and appreciative that James graciously accepted our award and made himself available to attend the Pongo Awards ceremony. 

5.  Tell us about Forum Konservasi Leuser 

Leuser Ecosystem

The Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL) is a nonprofit organization established in 2013 and based in Aceh dedicated to preserving and safeguarding the Leuser Ecosystem within Aceh province, countering immediate threats it faces. The Leuser Ecosystem holds global significance as the last remaining habitat where orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants coexist in their natural habitat. Additionally, it serves as a vital water source for over 4 million residents residing in its vicinity, providing essential ecosystem services. FKL collaborates closely with local communities and governmental entities to execute a range of initiatives. These initiatives encompass Wildlife Protection rangers actively guarding the Leuser Ecosystem for a minimum of 15 days each month, fostering increased research and understanding of the Leuser Ecosystem, and implementing community-centered restoration programs.

Stretching across the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, the Leuser Ecosystem is a vast expanse. Covering an area more than 35 times the size of Singapore, this ancient and magnificent ecosystem encompasses over 2.6 million hectares. Within its borders lie a rich tapestry of landscapes, including lowland rainforests, peat swamps, montane, coastal forests, and alpine meadows. Recognized globally as one of Southeast Asia's most biodiverse tropical rainforest regions, the Leuser Ecosystem also ranks as one of Asia's largest carbon reservoirs.

As the population continues to grow, so does the demand for land and space. Settlements and plantations encroach upon forested areas, escalating conflicts between humans and wildlife, particularly human-elephant conflicts. These conflicts often result in significant losses for both communities and wildlife, including incidents of elephants being poisoned or harmed by snares.

The restoration of the Leuser Ecosystem is imperative to maintain ecological equilibrium and ensure that the forest continues to provide the essential ecosystem services we rely on daily. Deforestation has had adverse effects on livelihoods and has fragmented wildlife populations within the Leuser Ecosystem. This fragmentation not only exacerbates human-wildlife conflicts but also harms a critical watershed, jeopardizing the well-being and livelihoods of local communities in the region.

Currently, FKL operates 30 Wildlife Protection Teams across the 2.2 million hectares of the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh Province. Each team comprises five members, including four FKL rangers and one government ranger. These teams conduct patrols for a minimum of 15 days each month, collecting data on wildlife presence, assisting with wildlife surveys, dismantling snares, and acting as advocates for their communities in safeguarding the forest. Since the establishment of FKL rangers in 2014 to protect key areas of the Leuser Ecosystem, they have successfully dismantled over 5,000 snares.

FKL manages two research stations in Aceh, the Ketambe Research Station and Soraya Research Station. These research stations operate in collaboration with government institutions and serve as hubs for environmental education in Aceh. Both stations welcome university students and academics from around the world interested in researching the biodiversity of the Leuser Ecosystem.

In 2019, FKL initiated a community empowerment program to offer alternative livelihoods to communities living near the forests. The Leuser Ecosystem holds significant potential for the development of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) such as bamboo, wild honey, dragon's blood (jernang), and more. This program creates incentives for communities to protect the forest, ensuring the continued availability of high-quality wild honey and other NTFPs.

I have long been aware of the remarkable contributions made by FKL and its founder, Rudy Putra. It was only fitting to recognize the organization for its unwavering commitment spanning decades, dedicated to preserving the pristine state of the Leuser Ecosystem. This award not only acknowledges their efforts in safeguarding orangutans but also encompasses the broader spectrum of biodiversity within the Leuser region. Our Pongo nomination committee was in unanimous agreement on this heartfelt decision.

6.  Tell us about Heal The Bay

Heal The Bay
Heal The Bay.

Established in 1985, Heal the Bay is a nonprofit organization committed to ensuring the safety, health, and cleanliness of the coastal waters and watersheds in Greater Los Angeles. Over nearly four decades, the foundation has harnessed the power of science, education, community engagement, and advocacy to carry out its mission, which involves safeguarding the coastline, rejuvenating our water systems, and advancing clean water policies to protect public well-being.

Situated beneath the Santa Monica Pier, the acclaimed Heal the Bay Aquarium offers an ideal setting for exploring marine science. It features more than 100 local species on display and hosts daily educational programs.

Annually, Heal the Bay mobilizes a multitude of volunteers to collect litter at beaches and within the watersheds of Los Angeles County. These cleanups serve as the final line of defense against marine pollution. The organization actively utilizes the data gathered by volunteers, including information on the total volume of trash and the types of debris in each area. This data is employed to educate businesses and communities, advocate for environmental legislation, and champion the overall well-being of our water systems. Moreover, in addition to beach cleanup efforts, they encourage cleanup initiatives at any accessible outdoor location within Greater Los Angeles's watersheds.

I have been familiar with "Heal the Bay" since its inception, even attending one of their initial workshops. Additionally, I had the privilege of personally knowing the organization's founder, Dorothy Green. As the Pongo nominating committee evaluates potential honorees, we place value on both local and larger international groups. The impactful work of Heal the Bay in the Santa Monica Bay area and its broader reach made it a highly commendable selection for the Pongo Award. 

7.  Tell us about the online Silent Auction and Live Auction to raise money for OURF on October 14th

Each year, the Pongo Awards brings together hundreds of environmentally-minded citizens locally in Los Angeles to celebrate local and global environmental achievement, activism, advocacy, orangutan conservation, and other endangered species preservation efforts. Guest appearances during the evening event include actor/activist Ed Begley, Jr. and NBC's Dagmar Midcap.

Our fundraising benefit for OURF, attendees will be able to bid on items and experiences offered at our online Silent Auction and Live Auction. 

Orangutan art will be featured within the art gallery venue. The Silent Auction will officially start 1 week before the gala and will end at 8:45 pm on October 14th (PDT). This will enable people across the world to help OURF raise funds through the silent auction.  

We will be livestreaming the Pongo Award presentation portion of the event so others can watch and enjoy the Pongo Awards globally. 

8.  How can people reach you?

Gary Shapiro, PhD
President, Orang Utan Republik Foundation
also dba: The Orangutan Project-USA
2309 Santa Monica Blvd. #828
Santa Monica, CA 90404
office phone: (310) 401-6602
personal cell phone: +1 (310) 780-0883 (WhatsApp #)


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Selva Ozelli Esq, CPA is a legal and finance executive with diversified experience dealing with highly complex issues in the field of international taxation and related matters within the banking, securities, Fintech, alternative and traditional investment funds. Her first of its kind legal analyses involving tax laws, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), blockchain technology, solar technology and the environment and have been published in journals, books and by the OECD. Her writings have been translated into 15 languages.

Photo by Jorge Franganillo on Unsplash
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