Meet sustainability guru Nadya Hutagalung


UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Nadya Yuti Hutagalung is an inspiring and dedicated campaigner for many noble causes. An Indonesian-Australian model, actress, television presenter, and mother, she’s also a renowned conservationist. We talked to her about her life and work, and what motivates her.


How and why did you become interested in environmental issues?


I grew up in Australia with my Mum who would always talk about “living off the grid” or “being self-sustainable” and shared stories about the two orangutans she rescued while she was living in Indonesia named Michael and Oli. At that time, I really did not know what she was talking about and even asked her to explain these concepts to me, which she did. I then spent my young adult years working and being blessed with the gift of an incredible platform. Being one of the faces to launch MTV across Asia I quickly realized the power of the platform and started to use it to speak about issues that I felt mattered. Thankfully, back then we really had a lot of freedom and spoke about whatever we wanted mostly. I started speaking about the orangutans back in the 90s on MTV. Not long after that someone I had worked with told me: “my cousin gave away half of his savings to the orangutans because of you.” It was then I really learnt the value of an influential voice and kept at it ever since.


How did you join forces with UN Environment?


UN Environment, specifically the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), reached out to me because of my passion for ensuring the survival of great apes, especially the Sumatran orangutans, a decade ago. I was thrilled to lend my voice to this initiative and addressed the UN General Assembly to mark World Wildlife Day in New York in 2015.


Furthering this work, I was delighted to join the #wildforlife campaign as the face for the critically endangered orangutan, along with 15 other celebrity champions.Many of the species in the campaign like helmeted hornbills, pangolins, rosewood and snow leopards have received greater protection from the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and their native countries; and bans on illegal products, including ivory and rhino horn, are being upheld and expanded. Great apes have the highest level of protection from CITES but are often collateral damage from deforestation. The young ones sometimes become exotic pets or end up in zoos. Both are devastating outcomes, and illegal.  We are hoping now to encourage more protection for the special Tapanuli Orangutan in Northern Sumatra that was only last year discovered to be a new species. There are many threats to it but we hope we can encourage alternatives to the hydro-dam that would destroy their habitat.


You’ve done a lot of work on wildlife conservation in Sumatra. Why Sumatra?


My father is from Sumatra and it’s the only place on earth where we have elephants, rhinos, tigers and orangutans together on one island. It would be silly of me not to do all I could to want to make a difference in my homeland. Sumatra also has very rich biodiversity hotspots such as Batang Toru and the Leuser Ecosystem which are both currently under threat of further development.


What inspired you to combat the illegal trade in wildlife?


In 2012, I met a wonderful woman named Dr Tammie Matson who is a zoologist, human elephant-conflict specialist and author. She was sharing with a group of people at a Christmas party we were both at about the plight of the elephants and rhinos. Tammie could see that I was engaged and curious and asked if I would like to go to Africa. I replied immediately “yes!” And so we hatched a plan and decided to head off to Africa to make some videos for Youtube to highlight what we learnt. I roped in my producer and head of crew from Asia’s Next Top Model Season one and the four of us head off to Kenya to hear directly from the Holy Grail of the elephant world.  What we learnt from Ian Douglas Hamilton, Cynthia Moss, Richard Bonham and Daphne Sheldrick [leading Kenya-based conservation and elephant experts] was astounding and we quickly realized that shooting videos for Youtube would not be sufficient so we decided to turn the project into an entire campaign featuring the Let Elephants Be Elephants documentary that went to air on National Geographic, Natgeo Wild and Star World. We also relied on traditional and social media and an extensive speaking tour throughout the region. Even though African species are still very close to my heart, I have shifted focus now to Sumatran habitat, community and wildlife issues.


Apart from species conservation, you’ve also done some campaigning on microplastics and cosmetics?


Yes, I joined Erik, fellow Goodwill Ambassador Adrian Grenier and the Bye Bye Plastic Bags Girls to launch UN Environment’s Clean Seas Campaign in Bali, Indonesia. Indonesia plays a very critical role in the amount of plastics in our oceans as one of the biggest polluters. It’s important that we look not only at the problem but at the incredible amount of technology and possible solutions available out there.


You’ve just published a photographic journey. What do you hope to achieve with this publication? Do you have any messages for young people today?


When I started out on this journey I really was just hoping to chronical some parts of my life. In all honesty I had a slight health scare and it really made me pause and look at my life and what I had achieved. I wanted to be able to have something to show for the roads I had travelled. My hope was to raise funds and awareness for the causes close to my heart and it was as simple as that. The whole process was really yet another opportunity to grow and learn and I can’t say enough about the wonderful team who walked this path with me to see this dream into a reality.