Orangutans, Our Superfamily Kin, Could Use a Hero Right About Now

Cheyenne, a female orangutan at the Houston Zoo's Wortham World of Primates, is sending out the bat signal for our help.EXPAND
Cheyenne, a female orangutan at the Houston Zoo's Wortham World of Primates, is sending out the bat signal for our help.
Photo by Stephanie Adams, Houston Zoo

We can't pull a Not In My Back Yard with this one. If you washed your hands, shampooed your hair or munched on prepackaged snack foods today, you could have been engaging in behaviors that have a serious impact on the other side of the world.

It turns out that many everyday items contain palm oil, which is only problematic because our need for those products causes farmers to plant more and more oil palm plantations to meet the demand. The loss of rainforest habitats, or the blocking of access to resource areas, affects not only orangutans but also elephants and tigers. 

We checked in with Peter Riger, the Houston Zoo's vice president of conservation and education, about how this all came about, what can be done about it and what will happen if we don't come to the aid of orangutans (who share 97-98 percent of our DNA).

"In the '60s and '70s, we used vegetable oil, soybean oil and peanut oil. When palm oil took off, all the companies made the switch, not realizing what would happen," says Riger. "The yield is better for palm oil; it's less expensive to raise."

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Riger says that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has made some headway by encouraging growers to incorporate environmentally friendly strategies. "Leave corridors to allow animals to go from one piece of forest to the next. Don't plant where it won't grow anyway, such as areas prone to flooding," says Riger. "So if you leave enough habitat corridors, the animals can move about and reproduce and exchange genetic diversity."

They're not advocating that we stop using palm oil, since other types of oil actually use up even more forest land. The goal is to get manufacturers to switch to sustainable palm oil. Riger says the carrot works better than the stick, and suggests writing letters to thank those companies that have made the switch. "As the big companies will go, the small companies will follow." He says the Houston Zoo also has an action webpage with more information.

Aurora, a juvenile Bornean orangutan who hangs out at the Houston Zoo, says her peeps are critically endangered.EXPAND
Aurora, a juvenile Bornean orangutan who hangs out at the Houston Zoo, says her peeps are critically endangered.
Photo by Stephanie Adams, Houston Zoo

Riger says the Sumatran orangutans already are critically endangered, and now the Bornean orangutans have been downgraded to that status, which is the last stop before they become extinct in the wild.

"It's a long-term process; it's going to take a couple of years," says Riger. It's not always easy to determine which products use palm oil, but consumers can research which brands have switched to sustainable and stay brand loyal. "It's really about advocacy, doing the right thing. 

"People visit zoos; they can visit the keepers, the staff, ask about the palm oil issue and learn what we can do to care about wildlife," says Riger. "It may not seem simple, but it becomes easy to make simple choices.

"You have a choice. Make that choice to make a difference."

For more information, visit houstonzoo.org/palmoil or rspo.org/about/sustainable-palm-oil. The Houston Zoo, 6200  Hermann Park Drive, 713-533-6500.

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6200 Hermann Park Dr.
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713-533-6500

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