As he visited the Oklahoma City Zoo's orangutan exhibit on Thursday, Ian Singleton marveled at the coloration of Toba, one of the zoo's Sumatran orangutans.
Singleton has spent 12 years working with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program and PanEco to help the plight of orangutans in that country that are endangered because of deforestation by the palm oil industry.
Through its conservation outreach programs, the Oklahoma City Zoo has donated about $60,000 to the project.
Last summer, several zoo staffers visited Sumatra to see firsthand how the money was being used. This year, Singleton is returning the favor.
He toured the zoo Thursday and gave a presentation to the public about orangutans.
Palm oil is used in many household products, from food to laundry detergent.
“It is a complicated issue,” Singleton said. “The amount of destruction of rain forest and wildlife in Asia from palm oil is immense. It's kind of an enigma, because on one hand, it causes a lot of destruction, but of all the vegetable oils, it produces the highest yield per acre.”
Palm oil trees can be grown in open land, but Singleton said companies prefer forested lands because they are usually owned by the Sumatran government, and permits are easy to obtain.
“They take an official out to dinner, and you get your paperwork and you're done,” he said. “It's one-stop shopping. If you go to nonforested areas, there are often questions about who owns the land. It's usually barren for a reason. Companies aren't keen on doing that.”
There are companies that have taken steps to protect orangutan habitat, however. Singleton said Unilever, a manufacturer of household products, recently helped form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil with organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund.
He said consumers can make choices on products based on whether they carry the roundtable logo.
“Unilever is one of the major buyers of palm oil, and they have sat down at the table on an equal footing with environmental and wildlife groups to discuss what can be done to improve conditions,” he said. “Consumers now can make a choice whether to buy products from companies that care about helping, and choose not to buy from companies that don't.”
The keeping of orangutans as pets is also a problem.
Singleton's Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program has returned about 185 orangutans to the wild over the past decade that had been kept as pets.
“When they are young, they are very cute and sociable, but when they mature they become very self-centered, and sex becomes a priority,” he said. “That's when people get bitten or even killed.”
Singleton said most people who have taken orangutans as pets are ready to give them up after a short time.
“They are loved to bits for about a week, and then they are chained to a chicken shed in the back of someone's house,” he said. “They get a rotten life.”
Singleton will visit several others zoos in the United States before returning to Sumatra.
He came away impressed with Oklahoma City's efforts at conservation and the orangutan and tiger exhibits.
“It is a very nice facility for these animals,” Singleton said.
“This community has done a lot to help this cause through outreach, and we are extremely appreciative for that.”
Consumers now can make a choice whether to buy products from companies that care about helping, and choose not to buy from companies that don't.”