By Hayley Pugh
A British photojournalist is the star of a new online series which sees him capture and relocate wild orangutans and elephants in a bid to become a wildlife ranger in Borneo.
Aaron ‘Bertie’ Gekoski has been put through his paces in the dense jungles of Borneo as part of the new show, dubbed Borneo Wildlife Warriors, which launches today (March 22).
The 36-year-old from London has spent the last year working with The Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) – an elite group of vets and rangers on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to deal with human-animal conflict in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
As part of the series, Aaron was tasked with catching and relocating elephants, orangutans and monitor lizards along with learning how to handle giant pythons and dealing with boisterous baby elephants and even having to care for a pangolin – the most trafficked mammal on the planet.
His incredible adventure has been documented by production company, Scubazoo, and the first episode can be seen today (March 22) on their newly launched online channel dedicated to wildlife and conservation, SZtv.
Aaron said: “Working in the jungle for a year, going on relentless rescues and relocations takes its toll physically and mentally.
“You get eaten alive by bugs and sucked on by leaches, plus it’s ridiculously hot. The relentless rescues and relocations are exhausting and can be intense.
“It was a crazy year, I was really put through my paces and I lived with the other rangers out in the jungle.
“First off I was put through a ‘boot camp’ in which I had to do a lot of the less ‘glamorous’ work including mucking out of exotic animal’s cages, along with being taught essential ranger skills such as crocodile trap building, snake handling and elephant training.
“I also saw first hand the impact the pet trade and traditional medicine trade is having on endangered animals here.
“Eventually they let me out on a rescue where I had to capture a large monitor lizard that was found in a local person’s house.
“After passing my ‘final test’, the WRU announced I was ready to go out into the field on some of their more hardcore operations.
“This included an elephant capture, orang-utan mother and baby capture, assisting on a sun bear medical and more.”
Aaron is no stranger to extreme career changes after leaving his job running a London modelling agency in East Dulwich in 2009.
He packed a bag and spent seven years working in Africa as an environmental photojournalist before being approached by Scubazoo CEO Simon Christopher to present a web series called Borneo from Below.
Touched by the tragic stories he heard in Borneo about a herd of 14 elephants which were poisoned in a plantation in 2013, he approached the WRU’s boss, Dr Sen Nathan, with the idea of joining up with the unit.
Aaron said: “Rather than just being a journalist and observing at a distance, I actually wanted to get on the frontline of conservation and live and work as a wildlife ranger.
“Remarkably Dr Sen agreed and that kick started a year unlike any I could have imagined.”
Dr Sen said: “The series shows a real behind the scenes look at what goes on at our ‘rescues’. Its basically a reality show on our wildlife rescues and also portrays the many wonderful characters within the WRU whose great deeds and heroic attempts save wildlife in Sabah.
“The WRU has come a long way since 2010 with a team of five, to a team of 24 now.
“It would not have been possible without funding from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council for the last six years.
Aaron added: “Two moments stand out – one was when we spent a week in an oil palm plantation trying to capture a large elephant.
“Elephants cause a huge amount of damage to valuable crops in a short space of time, so have in the past been the target of plantation workers.
“It is therefore essential they are relocated to jungle, far away from human settlements.
“After a week of trying to dart and capture the wily elephant, we finally brought it to a stand still. However it managed to charge us one last time before we tethered it to some trees.
“It then took us another couple of days to get the cage to the elephant through thick bush, load it onto a truck and drive it into the jungle. The process was tough on both the animal and the rescuers.
“Another moment stands out when we had to capture a mother and baby orangutan, again from a plantation. Borneo has lost around 25% of its jungles in the last 40 years for development and agriculture. This has caused more human-animal conflict.
“We managed to dart the mother after trying to capture them all afternoon. The baby shook the mother’s sedated body and – clearly thinking she was dead – did a runner.
“Myself and Wildlife Rescue Unit vet Dr Laura Benedict chased after the baby as, if it escaped, it would be too dangerous to dart it and therefore incredibly difficult to catch.
“Just as he started to make it up a tree, we managed to catch up with him. The baby was screaming in terror and trying to bite myself and Dr Laura, before we finally managed to sedate him.
“Mother and baby were then reunited, taken for medical checks, before they were released into the jungle several weeks later. It was a harrowing experience but work like this is so important in helping to conserve these animals.”