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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo educating consumers about palm oil cultivation, orangutans

December 23, 2017 Updated: December 23, 2017 at 8:35 pm
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In this Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 photo, an orangutan holds on the branch of a tree before being rescued and relocated from at a swath of destructed forest near a palm oil plantation at Tripa peat swamp in Aceh province, Indonesia. As demand for palm oil soars, plantations are expanding and companies drain the swamp, clear the forest of its native trees, and often setting illegal fires which in turn robs orangutans and other endangered species of their habitats, leaving the animals marooned on small swaths of forest, boxed-in on all sides by plantations. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

A shopper's choice of shampoo at their local supermarket could be more impactful than one might think - especially for an iconic, endangered animal in the rainforests of Southeast Asia.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is home to an effort to protect wild orangutans from habitat destruction by educating people about the potentially negative consequences of consuming palm oil, a common ingredient in processed foods, cosmetics and other supermarket products.

Millions of acres of rainforest are lost annually to the oil's production when farmers choose to clear-cut land to plant oil palm trees, according to the zoo.

The zoo created an app that can help customers choose wisely and, in turn, safeguard orangutans and other species.

The Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping smartphone app, available in Google Play or Apple's App Store, rates products containing palm oil into three categories - excellent, good, and needs improvement - based on the sustainability of their production methods. Customers simply have to scan the item's bar code using their phone or search the brand name.

"Every single one of us can make a difference every day based on what we buy at the store," said Dina Bredahl, an animal care manager at the zoo.

The app, created in 2014, is promoted by more than a dozen other zoos, including the Denver Zoo.

Educating others about the palm oil issue is tricky because a total boycott isn't the answer, Bredahl said.

Palm oil can actually be a more eco-friendly option if it's grown and harvested in sustainable ways that don't involve clear-cutting rainforests, zoo officials say. It's one of the least land-intensive oil crops, producing four to 10 times more oil per acre than crops such as soy or canola, according to the zoo.

Two islands in Southeast Asia - Borneo and Sumatra - are home to a different species of orangutan; Bornean orangutans are considered endangered, and Sumatran orangutans are considered critically endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

"The numbers are getting smaller and smaller," said Tracey Gazibara, the zoo's vice president of philanthropy and marketing. "And that was one reason why we knew that we needed to make a difference and make people aware of this crisis."

The zoo is home to members of both species: a Sumatran orangutan breeding couple (30-year-old Sumagu and 27-year-old Baka) and a Bornean orangutan family (21-year-old Hadiah, 23-year-old Tujoh and 3-year-old Ember).

"They are so much like us in a lot of ways," Bredahl said. "They're just so intelligent. Every single one of our orangutans has likes and dislikes and amazing personality. Our guests really connect with the orangutans."

But orangutans aren't the only animals at risk when palm oil isn't produced in environmentally conscious ways.

Each island is home to hundreds of other species, including rhinos and tigers in Sumatra and clouded leopards and proboscis monkeys in Borneo.

The zoo's efforts to educate its visitors about palm oil dates back several years.

Its Quarters for Conservation Program, which allows guests to allocate 75 cents of their admission to a conservation program of their choice, has raised more than $133,000 for palm oil awareness and orangutan protection since 2009, said Jenny Koch, the zoo's marketing director.

In 2010, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo became the first zoo to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a nonprofit that certifies sustainable palm oil producers.

The organization now includes several zoos, as well as producers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, investors and other entities that have a connection to the industry.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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