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Brookfield Zoo puts spotlight on plight of orangutans

By Donald Liebenson-Special to the Tribune
November 13, 2009

A sibling drama is playing out in the replicated rain forest treetops of Brookfield Zoo's Tropic World exhibit: Denda, a 7-year-old orangutan, is snacking on a clump of alfalfa, and his toddler sister, Kekasih, wants what he's having. But she has to catch him first,  and Denda has quickly climbed to the habitat's highest point.

Kekasih (pronounced KAY-kuh-see), who just turned 1, tentatively climbs hand over foot toward her brother. Mother Sophia initially stays out of it but then climbs to Kekasih, allows her to latch on and together they scale the top of the tree. Just as they reach Denda, he leaps away, holding onto his alfalfa prize.

Children watch. "Look, how cute," says one, and, "They climb like they have hands on their feet," says another. The recognizable behavior -- sibling rivalry as well as affectionate moments -- is, in part, what makes the eight orangutans such popular attractions at the zoo. They are members of the great ape family, our closest animal relatives, and their population is dwindling at a dramatic rate. Brookfield Zoo will join zoos around the world Saturday and Sunday in communicating this message of urgency during International Orangutan Awareness Weekend.

Visitors will learn the importance of protecting orangutans, and there will be craft activities to allow children to compare their handprints and arm spans to those of the animals. Zoo Chats will feature the keepers of Kekasih and family.

"People hear about endangered animals all the time," said Nava Greenblatt, lead keeper of primates for the Chicago Zoological Society, "but they have no idea how serious it is (for orangutans). They're most likely to become the first of the great apes to become extinct. We may be the last generation to see orangutans in the wild."

In Greenblatt's admittedly biased opinion, orangutans are the most fascinating creatures.

"They are extremely intelligent apes," she said. "You look in their eyes, and there's something there. They know the keepers and they probably recognize frequent visitors to the zoo.

"They're constantly problem-solving. Gorillas may use their strength to try to solve a problem, but the orangutans will use their brains. They have foresight. If they are going from one area (in their habitat) to another, they will bring things with them they will need, such as sheets, hay or a bucket to put food in."

The orangutan, whose name means "man of the forest," shares 97 percent of human DNA.

"There is a lot we can still learn from them," Greenblatt said. "They understand the rain forest. They may know what plants are medicinal. They've been known to eat a certain kind of leaf when they have a stomachache, and we might be able to investigate those resources."

But time is running out. Orangutans live on the southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. How many are left is unclear, according to Richard Zimmerman, director of Orangutan Outreach, an organization dedicated to protecting the animals and their habitat, but estimates are as low as 6,500 in Sumatra and between 25,000 and 35,000 in Borneo. They are disappearing at a rate of about 3,000 a year.

"Adult males are killed immediately," he said, "the females less so because their babies can be worth tens of thousands of dollars in the pet trade. In Thailand and Cambodia captured orangutans are exhibited as roadside attractions and made to kickbox for tourists."

They live in trees, which are being felled by illegal logging in rain forests at a rate of about six football fields "every minute of every day," Zimmerman said.

Now orangutans face a new and, ironically, so-called eco-friendly threat: the production of palm oil, a versatile and cost-effective seed crop low in trans fat.

It is found in more than one out of 10 supermarket products ranging from popular candy bars and snack chips to cosmetics.

Ninety percent of the global supply of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where the orangutans' rain forest habitat is being further cut and burned for conversion to palm oil plantations.

The zoo's catering department has directed suppliers to, if possible, buy products that do not contain palm oil, Greenblatt said, and visitors will be urged over the weekend to also forgo products that contain palm oil.

Deceptive labeling (palm oil is sometimes listed as "vegetable oil") complicates and confuses matters. A list of orangutan-friendly products can be downloaded from the Chicago Zoological Society's Web site at or from the Orangutan Outreach Web site at

Whales have long dominated "Save the ..." discussions. Recently "South Park" devoted an episode to the slaughter of whales and dolphins. Orangutans could benefit from a better press agent.

"You hit it right there," Zimmerman said. "It's just a matter of getting the word out. The challenge is that we're dealing with an unfamiliar commodity and an unfamiliar part of the world. Indonesia doesn't (get the exposure) that the Amazon does, and what's happening in those forests is equally important. There's a common perception that we can only fight so many battles.

"We've managed to get a lot accomplished, but we still need that one right hook. Even if it's something as goofy as 'South Park,' something that connects with a mass audience so they see it, get it, grasp it.

"That's why it's so key to have a zoo like Brookfield and people like (Greenblatt) and her colleagues trying to educate the zoo visitors that, if you like these orangutans, you should be aware their wildlife cousins are in deep trouble."

For more information about International Orangutan Awareness Weekend, visit or call 708-688-8000.




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