Orang-utans are under severe pressure in the wild and most populations will disappear over the next few decades unless current threats are reduced (Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 2011, 1–16). Conversion of forests in Borneo and Sumatra, largely for oil palm plantations, is the major factor driving the species' decline (Biological Conservation, 18, 487–502).
How can zoos contribute to mitigating this threat? Zoos Victoria exhibits orang-utans at its Melbourne Zoo. Because palm oil is unlabelled in Australia, our visitors unknowingly contribute to the threats faced by orang-utans when they purchase products containing palm oil. To address this, Zoos Victoria established the Don't Palm Us Off campaign to change food labelling legislation in Australia, to make palm oil labelling mandatory and to drive a market for sustainable palm oil. The campaign also aims to increase public awareness of the link between palm oil, food and risks to orang-utan survival.
The campaign (www.zoo.org.au/palmoil) was launched in August 2009, initially using petition-based postcards. Returned postcards were forwarded to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand. The organization declined to act on consumers' requests to have palm oil labelled but the cause was taken up by Australian senators, resulting in the Truth in Labelling Bill (Palm Oil) (2009) being passed by the Australian Parliament's Upper House. An online version of the postcard, community service announcements and high-profile celebrity support added to the campaign's reach. In the campaign's first 2 years > 160,000 people signed postcards, community awareness of the threats to orang-utans increased from 53 to 97% (Environmental Education Research, 19, 823–843) and five of the six major users of palm oil in Australia made public commitments to switch to Certified Sustainable Palm Oil by 2015.
In Phase 2 of the campaign, in 2012–2013, Zoos Victoria engaged with stakeholders across the palm oil industry, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and Malaysian Palm Oil Board, to identify barriers at the supply end. The Zoopermarket (www.zoo.org.au/zoopermarket) was launched in Melbourne Zoo's Orang-utan Sanctuary display in May 2013. This interactive experience allows visitors to scan common grocery products to see which companies are using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil or are committed to doing so, and to e-mail companies, asking for clearly labelled and sustainably produced palm oil.
In addition to the earlier outcomes, > 20,000 community actions supporting clearly labelled sustainable palm oil were recorded in the first 7 months of the Zoopermarket, and four companies committed to sustainable palm oil (including Goodman Fielder, a company responsible for 60–75% of Australia's imported palm oil in 2011–2012).
In September 2013, Zoos Victoria was invited to present the campaign internationally at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil European Summit and the 11th Annual Roundtable Meeting. This recognition highlights the role that a zoo-based conservation organization can play in helping to address a major challenge to threatened species.