Roger Nelson—Friend, Mentor and Champion for the Orangutans

Roger Nelson, center

Roger & Rosalie first had us to dinner in 1976. They had finished renovating their home in Oakland and invited us to share the beauty of their work. Roger was an expert at everything he tried—renovations, photography, writing, landscape architecture and relationships. Thus began a friendship of over 35 years with generous and true-hearted Roger and Rosalie

Indonesia 1996

In February of 1996 Roger visited the office of BHP in Balikpapan Indonesia. Wayne was on assignment there and we were delighted to once again meet up with Roger. We could always count on stimulating conversations with a thoughtful and skillful conversationalist and listener. Roger also shared a desire to learn more about orangutans—we planned a trip to the Sungai Wain Forest, a release site for rehabilitated orphan orangutans about 20 miles from Balikpapan.

The day was rainy, not unusual for rainforest very near the equator. However, we were all new in the area and not well versed in combating the assaults of the forest. “Don’t wear cologne, wear long-sleeved shirt and long pants, bring a hat, bring insect repellent”, we told him. Still we were unprepared for the crocodile infested swamp, the mud, and the onslaught of the leeches from air and ground. The forest was crawling with leeches. Green ones fell from the trees on to our heads and into our shirts. Brown leeches crawled from the ground and squeezed through eyelets in our shoes, through the weaving of our socks, and up our pant legs. Our clothing became spotted with blood. None of us chewed tobacco, which is a fine way to remove leeches. None of us had brought salt to sprinkle on them for removal but we “soldiered” on. 

The mud was slippery and grabbed onto our shoes. It splattered our clothes. One member of our party took a nose dive into it when she tripped and fell. Still we marched to the release site. And there Roger saw his first orangutans in the wild. He took many photos, including one of an orangutan carefully inspecting a leech on its arm. Roger was captivated, and I believe that was the beginning of his commitment to preserving orangutans and the rainforest.

Upon our return to Balikpapan, we dropped Roger off at the Dusit Inn, the newest and best lodging in town. Later he told us that when he reached his room, he found that there was no running water. He was covered with mud, still had leeches clinging to him, and no way to clean up. Years later we would reminisce with Roger about that experience and smile about that day.

Orangutan Conservancy

In 1999, Roger joined the efforts to form a new ENGO, at first called the Balikpapan Orangutan Society, USA and later the Orangutan Conservancy. He served as Chairman of the Board for over 7 years. During that time he was an inspiration and mentor to everyone working for OC. He was always calm, steady and thoughtful, ready to listen but also ready give concrete suggestions. Roger & Rosalie hosted members of OC for numerous meetings and events. Their generosity gave OC a chance to grow and fulfill its mission. Roger also generated many leads for OC volunteers to follow in efforts to raise funds for orangutan projects in Indonesia.

In November of 2002, Roger served as the OC lead for an event at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. The renowned Dr. Edward O. Wilson gave a guest lecture and then attended the fundraiser for OC that followed. Roger and Dr. Wilson are shown sitting together with Dr. Tim Laman, a National Geographic photographer and graduate of Harvard. Roger became great friends with Dr. Laman and his wife Dr. Cheryl Knott.

A few other notable events that Roger nurtured:
 OC’s very 1st Fundraiser in NYC, 1998, hosted by Caroline Stern.
 Fundraiser in Washington DC at the Indonesian Embassy, hosted by Indonesian government
 Seminar & fundraiser held in Des Moines, Iowa in 2005, hosted by Ted Townsend, GAT
 Seminar & fundraiser held at the Portland Zoo in 2006, hosted by zookeepers and docents

Roger was a positive and uplifting influence for everyone around him. We feel his absence deeply.

Tribute written by Wayne and Michael Sowards

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