19/10/2007 (Daily Herald) - Helping to save orangutans from extinction could be as simple as buying the right salad dressing.
Experts from around the world came to Brookfield Zoo to call attention to the plight of orangutans in the wild, which are dying by the thousands due to habitat loss.
But there are ways to protect the species, including choosing retail products that don't destroy the rainforest, scientists said during a Thursday conference.
"As humans, we should be stewards of the planet. By protecting orangutans, we protect other species," said anthropologist Cheryl Knott, who leads an orangutan research project at Harvard University.
"Orangutans tell us a lot about ourselves. They share 95 percent of human DNA," Knott added.
Orangutans, known for their reddish hair and expressive faces, spend most of their time in trees, where they feed on fruit as well as bark, insects and leaves. Next to gorillas they are the largest of the great apes with males weighing up to 200 pounds in the wild; females are usually half that size. Young orangutans rely on their mothers for survival for up to seven years.
The species once lived across Southeast Asia but now exist in the wild only in the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The estimated population is 61,700. In Borneo alone, for example, there were 225,000 a century ago.
Experts pointed to rainforest clear-cutting as the main culprit. Vast tracts of oil palm trees have been wiped out for palm oil, which is being increasingly used in foods because it is low in trans fat.
Researchers at the Orangutan Husbandry Conference Workshop urged consumers to read labels on groceries and use products without palm oil or that are produced at farms that practice sustainable agriculture. Such brands include Hellman's, Hunt's, Keebler, Newman's Own Organics, Reddi-Wip, Wesson and Wish Bone. Officials also warned against buying furniture or items made from teak or mahogany.
Researchers also noted that cutting down the rainforest contributes to global warming, as fewer trees are left to absorb harmful greenhouse gases and release oxygen. They pointed to the thousands of plant species in the rainforest that are being studied as cures.
"When you take down the rainforest, you take down a source of potential medicine," said Carol Sodaro, Brookfield lead keeper and orangutan specialist.
Experts described orangutans wandering around the decimated forests, bewildered with no place to sleep and no food to eat.
"Usually the males can go without a problem, but the females who stay with their babies usually are the victims," said Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, a scientist at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta, Indonesia.
"When they kill the forest, they're not only after wood but they kill the moms and take the babies," she said.
That's evidenced in some greeting cards, films or television shows that depict orangutans irresponsibly, said Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project..
"There are 1,000 orangutans as pets in Taiwan as a direct result of a TV soap opera," he said.