- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Cheyenne, the Houston Zoo’s oldest orangutan at 42, turns somersaults at the sight of a new baby primate. She’s stubborn and opinionated but understands almost everything her keepers tell her.

This week, as the world’s orangutan experts gathered in Houston for a conference on how to save some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, Cheyenne used her prodigious intelligence to play what was for her a brand new role - goodwill ambassador. The zoo is her home, but it’s also a powerful center for conservation, uniquely suited, thanks to this orange-haired elder statesman, to draw world attention to the orangutans’ disappearing habitat.

“Orangutans share 97 percent of our genetic makeup,” said Lynn Killam, the zoo’s assistant curator of primates. “They use tools, show emotion and understand complex sentences. Yet we are exterminating this species off the face of the Earth.”

The culprit in this case of encroaching extinction isn’t poaching, but palm oil, a product found in everything from cupcakes to deodorant.

Thus, the conference focused on orangutan management and survival and, for the first time, palm oil plantations. The crop contributes to the deaths of thousands of orangutans every year and also decimates elephants, tigers and hundreds of other species.

The problem is not the palm oil itself, but the indiscriminate destruction of wide swaths of rain forests in Malaysia and Indonesia. The process began in the early 1900s with tobacco crops, logging and mining. Deforestation was exacerbated by the explosive growth of the palm oil plantations in the late 1960s.

“Orangutans are losing their forest because of human development, if they lose their forest, they lose their home,” said Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director at the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, in Saba, Malaysia.

Both species of orangutans are now endangered, said Peter Riger, the zoo’s vice president of conservation. “There are only 7,000 Sumatrans left, a number that is down from tens of thousands in the past 30 to 40 years.”

Roughly 50,000 Borneans live in the wild, down from hundreds of thousands just 30 years ago.

The 217 orangutans in accredited zoos across the U.S. play a vital role in conservation efforts by offering zoo keepers the chance to talk to the public about how they can help protect the animal’s wild relatives.

Houston’s five orangutans were born in captivity. “But they are ambassadors for the animals in the wild,” Riger told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1yQsXSS ). “Seeing them makes you want to care about orangutans in Malaysia and Madagascar.”

The Houston conference brought orangutan experts together with conservationists and representatives of the palm-oil industry.

Consumers can play a major role in protecting the endangered animals through their shopping habits, Riger said. He recommends reading labels, buying sustainable palm oil and making responsible choices.

“We’re not asking people to boycott palm oil,” said Miriam Swaffer from the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The real action that people can take is to tell their favorite companies that they want zero-deforestation palm oil.”

Some of the corporations already using zero-deforestation palm oil are Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez International (the maker of Oreos, Ritz crackers and Nutter Butter cookies) and L’Oreal.

Stefano Savi, representing the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil at the conference, said his group has certified 18 percent of the palm oil produced internationally.

“We still have a long way to go,” Savi said. “But we’re seeing real changes.”

Conference participants got a chance to observe two of Houston’s celebrated orangutans. Aurora was climbing and swinging while her foster mom, Cheyenne, sat on the sidelines eating snacks, oblivious to the problems faced by their wild cousins and happily demonstrating how closely orangutan behavior resembles human.

The primate curator Killam described all five Houston orangutans with equal enthusiasm.

Rudi, 36, is a hybrid like Cheyenne. He was hand-raised and has a strong attachment to people, Killam said. Still, when he met Killam, he spit on her almost every day for a year.

“Then he won me over, and I won him over,” she said.

Indah, a 10-year-old Sumatran, is not a child but child-like, Killam said. “She’s very sweet.”

Kelly and Aurora are Borneans. Kelly, 34, “is a devil girl,” Killam said. “She’s so smart, I trained her to pee in a cup when she was 8, and it only took a week. Monitoring for infections became easy.”

Aurora is the baby at 3½. “She used to ride on Cheyenne continuously, but now she’s a little more independent and swinging around on ropes,” Killam said.

“At the slightest look, she’ll go back to Cheyenne. The two of them sleep together, and then you can’t tell one from another. There’s just a lot of red fur.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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