Don’t Palm Orangutans Off!

Photos by Heather Blackall, unless otherwise stated

There is a rising tide circulating the belief that animals are only truly free and living psychologically healthy lives if roaming the wild. In a utopian state that may be true, but human interference has painted “the wild” a dark and savage scene where cruelty abounds. One need not look any further than the orangutan for evidence of this. Orangutans are plagued with tribulations such as commercial logging and mining and deforestation for pulp and paper. Yet the single greatest threat to the survival of this species in the wild is that of palm oil.

Palm oil is a form of edible vegetable oil from the fruit of the oil palm tree. Approximately one in ten products on the supermarket shelves contain palm oil. Unfortunately labels are not always clear, and cleverly disguise the ingredient. Palm oil can be found in foods such as breads, cookies, chocolate, potato chips, cereal, margarine, and even some milk. Palm oil is also used in cosmetics like lipsticks due to the creaminess that it boasts. Common household products like shampoos, soaps, detergents, and toothpaste contain palm oil. A particular foam factor offered by the oil makes it a popular choice for these items.

Oil palms require a vast amount of water to grow and are abundant in the tropics. Traditionally native to South America and West Africa, palm oil plantations are now spreading to other areas around the globe as demand increases. Extensive areas of untouched tropical rain forest are demolished to clear the way for new plantations. This indiscriminate action destroys the life of everything in the region. In recent years, 90% of orangutan habitats in Borneo and Malaysia have been shattered beyond repair. Entire rainforests are shredded at a rate equivalent to that of 300 football fields every hour!

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 Photos from Orangatan.org shows that large amounts of deforestation occurs to develop land for palm oil plantations. Is it a fair trade, NO!


The palm oil industry has evolved to become one of Indonesia’s biggest export earners. Being an ingredient high in unhealthy fats, and one that has been scientifically linked to higher rates of heart disease, one can’t help but wonder why this is such a booming business. The answer is simple. Follow the money! Palm oil is cheap to produce and offers manufacturers the ability to extend product shelf life, ultimately increasing profits. Palm oil is an easy solution for increasing revenue with processed pre-packaged foods.

Yet just how deadly is this practice? Experts estimate that there are less than 50,000 remaining orangutans in the wild, with these numbers dwindling rapidly. Scientists hypothesize that wild orangutans are likely to go extinct by the year 2020. This is occurring in our lifetime! The palm oil industry slashes and burns habitats during the deforestation process. This results in many animals being burned alive or suffocating from the smoke. Other orangutans are mercilessly slaughtered for being pests standing in the way of progress. The fortunate few that survive are displaced, and left homeless without a food source where slow starvation ensues. Babies are abandoned as helpless orphans unable to care for themselves. It is a cruel deliberate death! Every time you purchase a product containing palm oil, you are directly participating in this genocide!

The outlook for wild orangutans is bleak. The irony is that it will take positive human interference to combat the damage that human meddling has caused this species. Thankfully, zoos across the nation are banning together to change the fate and preserve this intelligent species. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) convened a Palm Oil Task Force for the purpose of exploring how the AZA can collaborate with members to innovatively address this complex dilemma. The essence of this cabinet is to provide additional resources for educating zoo guests on the palm oil crisis and inspire visitors to take action. On a member level, individual zoos are generating their own programs beyond these plans. Examples are abundant!

The Philadelphia Zoo collaborates with the Conservation Drone Project in an effort to survey the actual damage in real time. Dr. Serge Wich, Professor in Primate Biology at Liverpool John Moores University and Lian Pin Koh of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, have developed conservation drones. These remote control airplanes are equipped with both still and video cameras. They are designed to be launched from confined spaces and can be easily transported. The drones enable scientists to detect orangutans and their nests high from an aerial perspective. By doing so, they collect accurate data on both population numbers and rates that habitats are being demolished. This innovative technology allows research funds to go farther. Expensive satellite images and flights are no longer required to collect the data. With limited budgets, every dollar counts and conservation drones allow for a more accurate snapshot of the crisis. As a result, the species survival plan can be kept current with modifications occurring in real time.


Zoo Atlanta is also working to raise awareness. Both the zoo and their food service and catering company are members of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Key staff members also serve on the AZA’s Palm Oil Task Force. Collectively, the zoo works to raise awareness and educate guests on how to identify products with palm oil and choose ethical alternatives. Teaching guests how to analyze labels and sort through the vague descriptors is pivotal for smart consumerism.

The Houston Zoo goes out into the trenches of Borneo to support orangutan conservation. They aide the Hutan’s Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project (KOCP). The objectives of this project are to enhance the scientific community’s knowledge of orangutan ecology, assess the wild populations’ health and genetic statuses, and develop policies for population management. The group also aims to reduce human conflict and boost community engagement in the regions closest to natural habitats.

Lowry Park Zoo also invests in field research. In 2012, they sent a primate keeper to Borneo for a month duration to assist with the Orangutan Foundation. The keeper labored in the field building new infrastructures for future orangutan release sites and also conducted field research. On a more local level, the zoo works tirelessly to help train guests on purchasing power. Each year, the zoo hosts an annual Easter Egg Hunt which draws droves of visitors. The keepers fill Easter baskets with greens, fruits, and other snack items and place them around the habitat along with care packages stuffed with goodies. Eggs are also hidden around the habitat as well. The orangutans experience a fun enrichment activity while practicing natural behaviors while guest attendance increases. This event allows attendees to connect with the orangutans, observe personalities, view intelligence, and ultimately develop a genuine interest in the species. This personal connection inspires the general public to take action in a way that no textbook, 3D model, nor hologram ever could. People connecting with animals on a personal level always leads to more effective conservation initiatives!


Zoos are not simply archaic forms of entertainment that enslaves animals for mankind’s amusement. They are organizations rooted in science, education, and they employ passionate individuals willing to make countless sacrifices because they understand that many species’ tomorrow depends on us today. Human interference is killing off species faster than they can recover. It will take direct human intervention to save these animals. Orangutans are a prime example of how zoos work quietly behind the scenes putting donations and park ticket admission dollars to work saving wild populations. If zoos go extinct, so do many of the planet’s wildlife. The first line of defense in conservation rests with your local zoo and aquarium. From gaining insight into physiology, behavior, and healthcare to field work, research studies, genetic analysis, educational campaigns, and public service announcements, zoos are keeping wild populations alive. Simultaneously their animal ambassadors bridge the gap between textbook learning and video documentaries. Live animals are zoos strongest weapon in turning the tide!


For more information on how you can make your home a palm oil free zone, visit http://www.zoo.org.au/get-involved/act-for-wildlife/dont-palm-us-off


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