Orangutans, Palm Oil and You!

Orangutans are one of the most popular animals on the planet and certainly so here at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden (CZBG). Their name means “man of the forest” as they are so similar to people,  sharing over 98% of the same DNA.  Orangs are highly intelligent and are considered by many as the most curious creature next to man.  Orangs never get tired of investigating and solving challenges. They must do so as they live solitary lives in the forest for the most part and have no fellow group members to help them, unlike  gorillas, chimpanzees or bonobos who live and problem solve in groups.  There is an old saying among zoo people that a good way to represent the differences between gorillas, chimps and orangs is as follows.  If you throw a screw driver in with gorillas they will get startled and run from it.  If you throw screw driver in with chimps they will attack each other with it. If you throw a screw driver in with orangutans they will figure out how to take their holding area apart.  They are very clever.

However there is one thing that orangs cannot figure a way out of and that is the loss of their rainforest habitat.  Wild orangs require large areas of rainforest in Sumatra and Borneo to provide them with the proper nutrition to survive.  The relationship between large plant eaters like orangs and a healthy rainforest is critical as they are constantly pruning vegetation, which stimulates fresh growth and spreading seeds around through their dung. The relationship of the rainforest to humans is just as critical as rainforests are our planet’s water reservoirs. They store valuable moisture like a sponge and then systematically release it into the atmosphere providing us with the most basic of needs, water in the form of rain.

Rainforests all over the world are being unsustainably decimated for timber and agriculture. Vast areas of orangutan rainforest are being cut down for palm oil production.  Palm oil is used in common products that we buy everyday like candy, cookies, snack crackers, soaps and cosmetics. Once a section of rainforest is replaced by the palm plants, it no longer can support orangs or the thousands of other species that share this habitat. As a result orang populations are plummeting, placing them on the critically endangered species list.  Some estimates say that if things continue unchecked that wild orangs could be extinct within ten years or less.  When we unknowingly purchase items using palm oil we are potentially contributing to this serious issue.

The good news is there are a lot of very concerned people out there that are taking action steps to save the orangs, while making it very simple for all of us to help too.  The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a committee that works with the Sumatran government, scientists, palm oil companies and manufacturers that use palm oil to reduce and eliminate the need for any more orang habitat to be cut down for palm oil plantations.  Palm oil that is produced without cutting down more rainforest is now certified and offered to companies as a sustainable product that will not negatively impact orangs.  Many large companies have welcomed this option and signed on, including many that make your favorite candy, snacks and other products.

As conscious consumers you have the option to help by selecting products that are RSPO certified.  If your absolute favorite candy bar, etc. does not contain certified palm oil you can always write to the company and let them know that they have a better option.  The young daughter of one of my coworkers, Benny Smith, did just that when she found out that her favorite kind of breakfast cereal had palm oil.  Way to go Olivia!

Sustainable Shopper Web App

The Cincinnati Zoo has also made it extremely easy to select orangutan friendly products by creating the “sustainable shopper” app for your smartphone.  The app lists lots of items that are made using RSPO certified palm oil.  It is broken down into categories to make it even more convenient as you walk through the grocery store. Get the FREE app here.  So the next time you visit the orangs at the zoo you can be proud to know that you are taking action to help this valuable and charismatic species.

To learn even more about important conservation efforts going on to save wild orangutans please check out this video link.  It is a very comprehensive report recently aired on NBC’s Rock Center news program.


Ron Evans
Primate Team Leader
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden