Jo Goatly spent two months working on an orangutan reserve in Borneo

I'd already been to Fiji to do marine conservation, and I wanted to work more with animals. I was choosing between elephants, turtles and orangutans and I thought the orangs would be the ones that I could interact with best. I just thought it would be a great experience to get that one-on-one contact with the animals.

Originally, there would have been orangutans across the whole of Borneo. The reserve where I was working is only about the size of the New Forest and there's not much more space left for orangutans. There are two reserves in Borneo.

The whole island is being turned into oil-plant plantations, which means a lot of jungle is being chopped down. The orangutans raid the farmland, and the farmers either shoot them or they call the reserve. A lot of the time the farmers shoot the mothers and the rangers will rescue a baby. There are also still a lot of villages in the jungle whose inhabitants would have no idea that it's not right to hunt the orangs, or that they're an endangered species.

Villagers might keep them as pets without knowing that it's illegal, until the rangers come to rescue them. The rangers are all local Malaysians, most from local villages. A couple of them are from villages that, in the past, might have hunted and eaten orangutan without knowing that it was wrong.

There are three or four stages to the rehabilitation process. There are babies who are brought in because their mother has been killed by farmers, poachers or local villagers. They are looked after 24/7 because they would normally be completely dependent on their mother. When they're about two or three, they're put in a group of seven or eight in a playpen.

When they get to about six or seven and they're starting to get their independence, they get pens of their own that they're kept in at night for their safety. But they're also free to wander off during the daytime. That's the time when they'd naturally begin to leave their mother and find their own feet.

They'll go into the jungle for a night or two and begin to feed themselves, and gradually they spend less and less time in the camp and more and more time in the jungle.

We also had a couple of fully-grown wild males. One of them, Samud, was taken to a zoo. That was sad, because the adult males really are awesome animals. And because there's no space left for them elsewhere on the island, they're put into a zoo. But there's an amazing zoo on the island, and Samud is now the dominant male in their brilliant orangutan section. It ended up always being me that fed him because a lot of the other volunteers found him too aggressive, so I was sad when he went - we'd made friends.

Sometimes we'd be looking after the babies - feeding them, bathing them and having them cling to you all day. You can't help but get attached to the young ones. The older ones needed to be fed and given their medicine. We'd also take them out of their pen, so they could learn to use ropes; we'd have to clean the pens and peel a lot of bananas, obviously.

Sometimes we'd be doing outdoor husbandry, which is in the later stage of their development when they're learning to venture into the jungle for a couple of days, and that would involve going out into the wild and nest-spotting to monitor what they're doing.

We did a lot of identifying so that you can see who's who, once they've been fully released. They're tattooed as well, to help monitor them. Even the ones who've got past the stage of sleeping in their pens at night will initially build their nests close to the centre, so you can see them in the nearby trees.

Nanong was a really fat young orangutan whom I saw teaching herself to make nests. She would sit at the top of a hill and roll down, so we called her roly-poly bird. And having a pot-belly actually meant she was really healthy. Ampall was another young orang, but he was recovering from malaria, so he was thin and quite slow and lethargic, like a little old man. He was weak but he was a success story because he was recuperating.

One of the babies had a broken arm where her mother had fallen on her when she was shot, and we had to persuade her to use the arm, and to use her fingers to cling, which she eventually started to do.

I was really amazed that they instinctively knew how to make nests. Even when they're really young they start to scoop up leaves and pat them down with the back of their hand, which is how you make a nest in a tree. Most of their skills come from nature, not nurture. We hardly had to teach them anything.

Jo organised her trip through Travellers Worldwide, www.travellersworldwide.com

Saving Turtles

Nick Coy, 24

It was about this time last year that I decided I had to do something different. I love watching nature programmes and going to the zoo. So a conservation project appealed to me. I did five projects in 11 weeks in Costa Rica. Two were turtle conservation projects. The others involved a lot of building. They were all brilliant.

The turtle projects were both on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. One of the projects wouldn't have survived without volunteers like us. It was during peak breeding season, so we were patrolling every night along the beach. During the day we built a new hatchery.

The second turtle conservation project was at Playa Caletas. They needed volunteers, but not as desperately as the first project. It got a bit repetitive because it is manual labour, but it's worth it if you get to see a turtle laying its eggs in the wild. I saw loads of baby turtles hatch.

We were living in very basic conditions with no electricity or running water. You have to have the right frame of mind. You have to think, "I know this isn't a holiday, I am here for a reason."

By the time I came home my Spanish was pretty good. You don't stay in tourist areas where people speak English. The experience made me more confident. Last year I couldn't have done a presentation in front of a handful of people. I now stand up in front of 40 grumpy American businessmen with ease.

Nick joined the turtle conservation projects through i-to-i, www.i-to-i.com

Melanie Leather, 32

I returned three weeks ago from a turtle conservation project. I spent a month on the island of Zakynthos in Greece working for Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece. I paid a £70 registration fee and my airfare. That was it.

The base camp was very basic: two cold showers, chemical toilets, a simple kitchen and eating area and everyone's tents. We were assigned duties such as beach patrol, which involved explaining about the turtles to the tourists. We did a lot of public awareness work. I presented slide shows at local hotels and manned the information booth. I also gave brief talks on turtle spotting boats, which involved some background reading. There were more mundane duties such as cooking for 40 people.

After that, I spent three nights on the beautiful island of Marathonissi. We were the only ones living there. Apart from beach patrol, we conducted morning and night surveys. At 6am we searched for turtle tracks on the beach, recording all the data and mapping the nests. It was a steep learning curve.

It never got boring - I'd recommend it to everyone. The Greeks aren't big on conservation, so you really feel you are doing something worthwhile.

Melanie volunteered with Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece, www.archelon.gr

Interviews by Emma Prest

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