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The trip of a lifetime for 10th-grader Clodagh Cunningham

In June of 2019, I was offered to travel to a part of the world I had never been before, Borneo. The island in Southeast Asia is largely known today, for being one of the only places to inhabit the endangered species of the Orangutans. This is precisely why a group of 16 students from Copenhagen International School flew across the world. Operation Wallacea (OPWALL) is a conservation programme, dedicated to research used to protect wildlife from extinction, worldwide. In travelling with OPWALL, we spent two weeks in East Kalimantan (the Indonesian side of Borneo) with one week in the Lesan Protection Forest and the second at the dive site on Derawan Island. 

The conservation programme was put in place in Borneo due to the immense deforestation throughout the lush rainforest. Over 30% of Borneo’s remaining rainforest has been wiped out in the last 40 years for the production of palm oil. Because of this, OPWALL began their new programme in Borneo, after being invited by the Berau government to help with the identification of fauna in the rainforest in hopes to save the rainforest.

Palm oil is a vegetable oil used in a variety of processed foods such as crisps, ice cream, margarine and many more. It is also used in cosmetics, shampoo and cleaning products. These are just a few of the many products meaning that there is a high demand for palm oil, and therefore the supply must meet the demand, at the cost of Borneo’s rainforests. 

The first week was spent collecting data within East Kalimantan to help with biodiversity surveys on birds, bats, primates, forest structure, butterflies, herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and large mammals. Not only did we have the most incredible experiences in the heart of Borneo’s rainforests, but we completed a course on Borneo wildlife ecology. The journey was an adventure in itself. Four flights and two days from Copenhagen, we were introduced to the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP) stationed in East Kalimantan to rescue and rehabilitate orangutans after the destruction of their homes due to oil palm plantations. 

Their heart wrenching stories showed us how important the work we were doing was to these animals that have called Borneo their home their whole lives and are having it stripped from them for consumer products. We then moved over to experience the unique culture of the Lesan Dayak Village where we met the locals and they graciously welcomed us with open arms. 

After a week in the humidity of the rainforest, we were all excited for the final part of our trip, including learning to dive on Derawan Island. Just an hour’s boat ride off the coast of the mainland lies a popular dive site in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, The Coral Triangle. Unfortunately, the rising temperatures of climate change are bleaching and killing the coral, a primary reason for OPWALL to set up their programme. In addition to getting the opportunity to dive in a whole new world, some of us completed a reef ecology course on the specific animals living there.. 

Once we were all qualified divers, we were introduced to Project Aware: Dive Against Debris. In an attempt to rid the oceans of debris, Project Aware works by combining a passion for diving with marine conservation, and this is exactly what we did on Derawan Island, collecting plastic, metal sheets, fishnets and other rubbish that never belonged in the oceans. If diving isn’t an option, there is still so much more you can do to help, for instance, we participated in a beach clean up too, reducing the pollution on land as well as in the oceans for future land and marine animals, such as the 200 baby turtles we released into the oceans while we were there!

Copenhagen International School has participated in three OPWALL expeditions now, including Mexico, Madagascar and now Borneo, inspiring the youth to take action in a world we all have to live in, because whether we like it or not, this is the planet we are stuck with. It is our turn now, to fix the world, to nurse it back to health and never make these mistakes again. Aren’t we supposed to be the educated champions of a just and sustainable world? The next trip will take place in the summer of 2021, so sign up, and take action into your own hands, because the truth of the matter is, if you don’t, who will?

Clodagh Cunningham, Grade 10