It has been five years since Natasha Stott Despoja left politics to raise her two young children but the former leader of the Democrats has been busier than ever. Ever the woman with a cause, the 43-year-old talked to Essential Kids about her latest project – saving orangutans in south-east Asia.
When Natasha’s eight-year-old son, Conrad, stumbled across The Orangutan Project’s (TOP) Redheads for redheads campaign he was determined to get his family on board with the charity – luckily, his hair fitted the bill.
“All of our family are involved but Conrad was the starting point,” says Natasha.
“He was largely responsible for influencing our family holiday last year, because we went to Borneo in Malaysia and had a look at some of the work that’s been done to try and save this endangered species and it’s quite extraordinary when you see it up close.”
But these great apes won't be around to see much longer if we don't take responsibility for ensuring their survival. It is estimated that extinction in the wild is likely in the next 10 years for Sumatran Orangutans and soon after for Bornean Orangutans.
Natasha's experience not only moved her to action but she was also surprised by how much she identified with these human like apes.
“There are good reasons for Australians to feel an affinity with this great ape because we are very closely related, they are incredibly like us. We share 97% DNA and when you watch them in the wild or in the case where we have observed them, in protected areas, you’ll note that they are very human like and we’ve got a responsibility not to be their greatest threat but to be their greatest supporter and friend and that’s a role that our family are taking pretty seriously,” she says.
Natasha is calling for the phase out of palm oil to help save these great apes. Deforestation due to the planting of palm oil plantations is a major cause for loss of orangutan habitat.
As a starting point, she’d like to see a bill for palm oil labelling on food products to be passed through parliament.
"It really isn’t calling for a prohibition on palm oil, it’s calling for labelling, so Australians like you and me in the supermarket can at least make an informed decision as to whether or not we’re buying products that have palm oil in them."
Palm oil is widespread in Australian food products, present in everything from chips to chocolate and even cleaning products. On food labels, it is often listed as vegetable oil. Currently, only three vegetable oils must be labelled in food products in Australia and New Zealand. Those are peanut oil, sesame oil and soy bean oil, for allergy reasons.
While Natasha no longer has political sway, she says she’s passionate about helping kids realise that they can make a difference.
“I think that young Australians are really instinctive about a range of issues, including protection of animals and I think they’ve got a much better understanding of and appreciation for the environment than perhaps people did when I was their age.”
“Conrad has shown you don’t have to have a profile, you just have to be passionate about conserving and saving your environment,” says Despoja.
“He travelled to Parliament with me for at least the first three years of his life, so I think that he almost instinctively understood, you can make a difference, almost you’ve got a responsibility to make a difference to your world.”
How you can help
As for the orangutans, Natasha has a few tips for those who want to help TOP's cause.
- Talk to your children about palm oil and deforestation
- Send a letter to your local member of parliament
- Sponsoring or adopting an Orangutan of your own, maybe as a birthday or a Christmas present.
Find out more on TOP's website or phone them on 1300 RED APE (1300 733 273).