The Philippines, an archipelago of over seven thousand islands, is home to two-thirds of the Earth’s biodiversity, including 70 per cent of the world’s animal and plant species (USAID, 2016). Aside from the country’s white sand beaches and affordable amenities, both the government and private institutions have thrown money into developing and modernizing parts of the country, in an attempt to attract more tourists and possible expat business investors, despite the effects on the nation’s biodiversity. Reactions to these developments can often result in significant change, such as the controversial underwater amusement park project that was eventually scrapped due to the uproar it caused amongst environmentalists (Greenpeace Philippines, 2017). In the fight to protect the country’s biodiversity from destruction in the name of development, younger voices are making themselves heard. One of these voices is Jazz Ong.
As a child, Jazz was raised on National Geographic Kids, Animal Planet, and trips to the zoo. It’s no surprise that growing up in an environment where loving animals was part of life sparked a passion for them. Despite entering university and working for an undergraduate degree in Organizational Communication, she still wanted to work with animals. While in college, she made use of her extra time to work with animal organizations, and this was when she experienced a narrative that, unfortunately, is all too familiar to a lot of women. She was told, by friends and colleagues, that working with animals wasn’t her place because it’s a “man’s job” or that she wasn’t qualified or educated enough in the field.
I’ve known Jazz for a few years and I think we’d consider each other friends. While it’s impossible to describe her with one word, if I had to, it would be: Fighter. She’s a fighter that doesn’t back down and definitely doesn’t do it quietly.
It was after all the belittlement, after being ostracized for her gender, being treated as less than qualified; After her passion was misunderstood as insubordination, as arrogance. It was then that she stood up to the voices in her way, where she decided to do things her own way.
Using her Communications degree, Jazz played to her strengths and set up her own group called Wildlife Matters, which in its infant stage was just a wildlife education show. The group would launch weekly episodes about Philippine wildlife and conservation. She wholeheartedly believes in edu-conservation, and that education is the first step to conservation. With the skills that she’s learned, not just from her degree, but also from real world experiences, she was able to address gaps that she saw in the current field of wildlife sustainability. Firstly, the need for a show that educated people about Philippine wildlife. Secondly, the need for a show that featured a woman host that also worked directly with the animals. Thirdly, the need to stop the killing of often misunderstood creatures, which remains a huge passion for Jazz. Over the past few years, Wildlife Matters has been doing just that. Today, they’re on national television, host talks in universities, and work with partner organizations to increase the awareness of the threats to Philippine wildlife. A major initiative for the group has been changing people’s misconceptions about misunderstood animals like snakes, and speaking up in defense of snakes that people are quick to kill. Jazz attributes this to her feeling misunderstood and voiceless in the past. While the group has found its little spot in the world, Jazz isn’t content, and she’s far from done.
While she still faces critics (both for her vision and ability to execute it),she counts herself lucky to have people in her life who have encouraged her, and to have other organizations to come alongside her (such as the Philippine Eagle Foundation and the Centre for Sustainability Philippines, Inc.). Wildlife Matters has made strides into expanding their role in protecting animals. The group just became a registered NGO, and are exploring the possibility of establishing a conservation facility in the country. Their goal is to equip, create and raise a community and generation of animal lovers, who like Jazz herself, don’t have a Biology background, are misunderstood, and will fight for misunderstood animals. They believe it doesn’t matter what your college degree is, what your gender is, or your race –– this is your world too.
So if you’re reading this and you feel like you’ve been counted out of the conversation, if you’ve been told that you don’t have the ability to fight for this world, whether that be wildlife or human rights or any other issue that plagues this planet, if you’ve been told that you’re not qualified, –– they’re wrong. Your voice matters. Be like Jazz. Speak up, speak loud.