Recipient of the Women at Work 2015 International Women’s Day Leadership Award for Global Charitable Endeavours for her work on behalf of orangutans and OFI.
Kobe Steele, Founder and President of Orangutan Foundation International Australia, is a one-woman powerhouse of passion and purpose, an articulate campaigner and orangutan advocate who tirelessly fundraises to protect what is left of the ancient rainforests of Borneo. She has made it her mission to ensure a home for orangutans and other endangered species, helping to raise well over $1 million to buy up and save critical orangutan habitat from the onslaught of the palm oil industry; and has used her unique background as a former media TV personality, producer and publicist to help drive greater awareness about the real issues that continue to face the orangutan and their rainforest home.
While Kobe today pushes for change for the orangutans under the care of OFI and Dr Birute Galdikas, it is difficult to believe that when she first visited Borneo in 2008, she did not want to go.
Kobe was in deep mourning after losing her beloved 25-year old daughter, Kristin, her only child and best friend, who was tragically knocked down and killed on her way to work by a truck in Amsterdam in 2007. Kobe’s world stopped. She could barely function. She cried uncontrollably each and every day and had become completely agoraphobic. She believed she would never feel happiness or purpose in life again.
Friends and family were understandably concerned. The Kobe Steele that a lot of people remembered had a personality and love for life that bubbled 24/7 – she was the first woman in Australia to host her own national music TV show; a top publicist for record labels and international touring agencies. She also enjoyed a long career in radio, becoming the female voice of 2UW and the producer of the station’s highly successful Bazz and Pilko breakfast show.
Helping Kobe to recover from her devastating loss of Kristin was not easy. Then, out of the blue, one friend did help, but it certainly wasn’t something she was expecting. He told her he was taking her on an ecotour to Borneo to meet the orangutans, as he believed they would help to heal her. Kobe thought this was the silliest idea and that nothing would ever help to heal her broken heart. She was also worried that her grief and constant crying would make everyone else on the trip uncomfortable. After avoiding the invitation for as long as she could, Kobe agreed to go and while she cried for most of that first tour, it was on the second last day and a visit to the Orangutan Foundation International’s (OFI) Orphan Care Centre & Quarantine facility that changed everything.
Kobe still remembers the day, vividly. She met a bald little orphan orangutan named Faisal who looked into her eyes and she into his. And it became the moment that Kobe finally understood why she was there.
Faisal filled her heart with a pure joy and elation that she believed she would never feel again. His lack of hair, Kobe learnt, was a result of the trauma and depression caused by the loss of his mother who was killed, yet this little infant orangutan had given something back to Kobe that was so powerful. “Faisal gave me back my happiness. I was me again and I have the orangutans to thank for that.”
Kobe pledged to do something in return for the orangutans. Knowing that most of the money for ecotours to Borneo at the time were going to the companies who were running them, with maybe a pittance percentage going to orangutans, Kobe decided to start up her own not-for-profit Borneo Orangutans ecotours, so that she could start channelling funds to the OFI Care Centre and support the work of its Founder, Dr Birute Mary Galdikas.
Kobe eventually met Dr Galdikas in 2012. Dr Galdikas took Kobe to visit a remote piece of pristine rainforest, which was up for sale. Elders who presided over the land had offered to sell this critical orangutan habitat to Dr Galdikas to preserve for the orangutans if she could raise the necessary funds. Otherwise, the land would be sold to the palm oil plantations who would decimate it. Dr Galdikas had fundraised tirelessly but had exhausted all channels and was still $250,000 short. Kobe was determined to help. She returned home and founded OFI Australia and successfully raised this money in time. She has not stopped since. Under Kobe’s leadership, OFI Australia has raised funds to purchase and protect further tracts of land in Borneo, extending what is now known as The Orangutan Legacy Forest.
Protecting orangutans, who are now a critically endangered species, will forever remain Kobe’s deepest reason for founding OFI Australia and she believes strongly that her daughter Kristin has held her hand all along the way. She would like more people to understand how dire the situation is for the rainforests in Borneo. They are the oldest in the world and are considered, along with the rainforests of the Amazon, the lungs of the Earth, yet more than 80% have already been wiped out through deforestation.
“To save orangutans we must save the forest”.
Image: Kobe meeting Faisal for the first time.