October 25, 2016

By Heidi Hellmuth, Curator of Primates, and Emily Bowling, Conservation Education Liaison


Palm fruit Palm fruit

How many of us have checked the labels of everything from toothpaste to candy for the presence of a potentially destructive, but very common product—palm oil?

A mind-boggling 30 million tons of palm oil are produced annually, resulting in the destruction of millions of acres of tropical forest habitats and threatening the survival of multiple species. 

Palm oil plantations are concentrated primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia—the only places orangutans live. The palm oil boom, along with other pressures, have led to the destruction of more than 90 percent of all orangutan habitat  and the deaths of over 50,000 orangutans in the last two decades.  At this rate, orangutans could be extinct in the wild in 20 years.

Palm oil plantation Palm oil plantation

These plantations have not only destroyed a massive amount of habitat and food sources for species; they have prompted construction of numerous roads that allow easy access for poachers who once had to trek through difficult forests to illegally hunt orangutans and other animals.  This accessibility places even more orangutans at risk of being hunted for the pet trade, for medicinal purposes, for bush meat and the sale of their body parts.

Palm oil plantations are spreading to Africa and South America, and are in over 25 countries worldwide.  This means the list of animals threatened from loss of their habitat is growing as well; animals like gorillas, chimpanzees, spider monkeys, cotton top tamarins, and many more are threatened. 

Baby Ginger and her family Baby Ginger and her family

How can we help orangutans and other animals at risk from palm oil?  Should we boycott all products containing palm oil?  The answer is no, because when farmed sustainably, oil palms are actually one of the most productive of all edible oil plants, producing five to ten times more oil per acre than some other crops, like soy and canola.

Sustainable palm oil is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), according to specific criteria. The roundtable was established in 2004 to better oversee the industry. The RSPO criteria require that no primary forests or areas, which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity, are cleared. Sustainable growers must reduce their use of pesticides and fires and abide by local and international labor standards in managing their workers fairly. They also must treat the communities around their plantations with respect by consulting with local leaders before they develop new plantations

Since 2013, when the Food and Drug Administration banned partially hydrogenated oils, (a huge source of trans fats) demand for versatile and inexpensive palm oil has boomed. Now palm oil is everywhere—in ice cream, chocolates, biscuits, lipsticks, toothpaste, soap detergents, even cosmetics. In fact, palm oil is now in about half of all consumer goods and may be best known for being an ingredient in candy.

That’s right—it’s Halloween and a prime time to purchase candy for those little ghouls and goblins who come trick or treating.   

Halloween shopping guide Halloween shopping guide

Then, what can we do?  Here are a few simple ideas for helping save orangutans and other wildlife threatened by unsustainable palm oil:

  •  When purchasing Halloween or other holiday candy, use the helpful resource on the Saint Louis Zoo’s website to choose orangutan-friendly candy - Halloween Palm Oil Guide
  • Link to the free app from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to help make shopping for sustainable palm oil-friendly products easy by scanning the barcode on a product to learn whether it contains sustainable palm oil -Palm-Oil Crisis Resource Kit. 
  •  Take the same approach we are at the Saint Louis Zoo, and change one product at a time.  As you run out of a product that uses unsustainable palm oil, use the app to help locate an orangutan-friendly alternative, and make the change to sustainable palm oil one product at a time. 
  • Share this information with your friends and family so together we can do even more to help save orangutans and so many other species.  

At the Saint Louis Zoo, our Palm Oil Task Force has been working to insure that as many products as possible come from manufacturers who use only sustainable palm oil.  In 2014, the Zoo’s staff helped inventory every consumable product from fish food to ice cream bars to bathroom soap. A spreadsheet lists more than 600 items. Task force members are working to make sure the goods the Zoo uses are orangutan-friendly whenever possible. We are continuing to improve all the time. 

Palm oil signage in River's Edge Palm oil signage in River's Edge

The candy distributed at special events, such as this month’s Spooky Saturday and Boo at the Zoo, and at Wild Lights over the holidays, has been orangutan-friendly for the past few years.  The Zoo has also added educational signs to increase palm oil awareness.

The Zoo's WildCare Institute also offers help for orangutans by supporting Hutan, a grassroots nonprofit organization working to build innovative approaches to conserve orangutan and other wildlife populations in the forests of Sabah. In 1998, Hutan set up the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme, which has long conducted high quality research and conservation activities in Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo; which is one of the two countries where orangutans live in the wild.

Ginger Ginger

To get inspired to help, all you need to do is visit the Zoo to check out our own orangutan family:  Merah and her daughters, Ginger and Rubih, and male Cinta can be found in either the Zoo's indoor habitat in Jungle of the Apes or in the outdoor habitat at Fragile Forest. Merah made history when she gave birth to Ginger in December 2014. Among all of North America’s institutions working together to save this species, Merah, at age 45, set a record as the oldest female orangutan to conceive and have a surviving offspring she is rearing.  Ginger was the fifth baby for Merah, who is the grandmother of two and the great-grandmother of one.

Help save the Gingers of the future by buying sustainable products.