Saving Orangutans, One Zoo Visitor At A Time

Do you know what sodium lauryl sulfate is? How about sodium laureth sulfate? It’s in a lot of the processed foods you see at the supermarket. Its use also directly threatens one of our great ape cousins, the orangutans. As the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are cleared to produce timber and to expand palm oil plantations, the orangs are losing their homes. When people purchase products that contain palm oil, demand for the product goes up, and rainforest destruction accelerates. In recent years, public education efforts have begun to increase knowledge about the relationship between palm oil and orangutan conservation. But even the most conscientious shopper can be fooled into buying products with palm oil in them because they can be described on packaging as “sodium lauryl sulfate” or even just as “vegetable oil.”

In part to address this disconnect in knowledge, the Melbourne Zoo launched a campaign called “Don’t Palm Us Off” in 2009. The primary goal of the campaign was to raise public awareness about what palm oil is, what sorts of products it is found in, and how palm oil impacts orangutan conservation. In addition, the campaign would hopefully lead to changes in food labeling laws and consumer behavior in Australia and New Zealand. That, in turn, could lead to the creation of a sustainable palm oil market.

Zoos have a complicated relationship with conservation education, at least as far as public perception goes. Amid the public relations crisis that was the euthanasia of Marius the giraffe earlier this month, it was clear that some believe that zoos care more about their bottom line than about conservation. On the other hand, zoos are central to the conservation of many threatened species: the Przewalski’s horse, Kihansi spray toad, California condor, Black-footed ferret, and more. It’s hard to argue that zoos haven’t played an instrumental role in the conservation of some species, but conservation education is a slightly different story.

Historically, education at zoos was thought to occur implicitly, via connecting visitors with animals. By observing animals and their behaviors and by reading the signs accompanying the exhibits that describe the biology, taxonomy, lifespan, and conservation status of the animals, it was thought that visitors would feel more appreciation for other species and thus be inspired to adopt more conservation-friendly behaviors and attitudes. Scientific evidence to support that hypothesis has been, at best, inconclusive.

Even when visitors do read the signs and understand that a given species is threatened, prior research suggests that they lack information on what they can actually do to help. Many zoos have innovated, moving beyond the simple approach of placing a simple static sign near an exhibit.

Melbourne Zoo’s “Don’t Palm Us Off” program featured at its center a sixty-second-long video, which described the connections between consumer behavior, palm oil, and orangutan habitats. The video was played on a constant loop on a large screen in the orangutan exhibit throughout the entire yearlong campaign. Visitor attention could be sustained since the video itself was so short. In addition, the video was narrated by a well-known Australian TV personality, and featured cameos by other local celebrities. That video was also uploaded to YouTube and was screened on public access television for the entire year.

Upon exiting the exhibit, visitors had the opportunity to sign petition cards to declare their support for mandatory palm oil labeling. And visitors could take wallet-sized cards that would help them identify which products did and did not contain palm oil, similar to the sustainable seafood cards produced by Seafood Watch and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In addition, a section was added to Melbourne Zoo’s website providing further information on palm oil and orangutan conservation. The campaign received national media coverage both on primetime television and on national radio.

To measure the success of the awareness campaign, researchers from the University of South Australia led by Elissa L. Pearson distributed surveys to visitors at the zoo’s orangutan exhibit six months prior to the start of the campaign, six and twelve months after the campaign began, and again six months after the yearlong campaign ended. In all they collected data from 403 visitors.

While knowledge about orangutans remained constant throughout the data collection period (87% of visitors were already aware of the orangs’ habitat loss at baseline), the odds that visitors knew that palm oil was to blame increased. As the awareness campaign drew to a close, visitors were three times more likely to correctly identify palm oil production as the main contributor to habitat loss compared with the baseline. And that effect persisted. Six months after the campaign ended, they were still 2.5 times more likely to do so.

Support for improved labeling practices was already high at baseline (69%) but the campaign increased support to 90% after just six months, and that remained constant for at least six months following the end of the program. Similar effects were seen when visitors were asked whether such labeling would alter their purchasing behaviors. Consistent with those results, three quarters of all visitors signed a petition card.

Some folks might wonder whether the awareness campaign actually decreased visitor enjoyment of the orangutan exhibit. They would argue that visitors don’t go to the zoo to hear bad news; they go to enjoy themselves. On the contrary, visitor satisfaction actually increased during the campaign, though the increase was not statistically significant. According to Pearson, this suggests that at least “there was no negative impact of the campaign and the targeted educational messages provided at the exhibit on visitor satisfaction levels,” and that “zoo experiences can be highly satisfying and enjoyable for visitors, while also providing education which encourages conservation action.” Learning is not necessarily at odds with having fun at the zoo.

By the end of the campaign, the Melbourne Zoo’s palm oil website was viewed by at least 138,000 people, and more than 33,000 people followed the cause on Facebook. Combined with the effects of the exhibit itself, it appears as if the campaign was successful in terms of educating zoo visitors and the broader public about orangutan conservation and palm oil. The researchers say that this highlights “how zoos can complement traditional education (i.e. signage and animal displays in isolation) with focused conservation education messages, which cover both the cause of conservation threats as well as what people can do to help.”

Thoughtfully designed awareness campaigns can also influence public policy. In 2010, as the zoo’s campaign was winding down, legislation called the Truth in Labeling Bill was introduced in Australian Parliament. It was designed to make mandatory the listing of palm oil as an ingredient on food packaging. Petition signatures collected at the Melbourne Zoo, as well as preliminary findings from this research, were provided to members of parliament as they considered the bill.

Zoos can be important partners in conservation education, and that goes beyond the ways in which they allow visitors to feel connected to non-human animals. Pearson says that this research “attest[s] to the importance of continued innovation in zoo education practices.” – Jason G. Goldman | 26 February 2014

Source: Pearson E.L., Lowry R., Dorrian J. & Litchfield C.A. (2014). Evaluating the conservation impact of an innovative zoo-based educational campaign: ‘Don’t Palm Us Off’ for orang-utan conservation, Zoo Biology. DOI:

Image: Orangutan at Kuala Lumpur Zoo via Wikimedia Commons/Yblieb

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1 Comment

  • Chris Draper March 7, 2014 at 3:40 am

    Anything that stems the tide of habitat destruction and improves orang-utan protection is to be welcomed and with that in mind, despite my misgivings about the welfare of captive orang-utans and role of zoos in conservation, I was interested to see publication of this article and the original paper to which it refers.
    However, it is a shame that the original research cannot tell us whether a zoo-based educational campaign is better or worse than a similar campaign not based at a zoo. It would have been reasonably easy to run a control or a comparison study alongside the zoo-based study. As a result, while the findings indicate a benefit from this zoo-based campaign, we still don’t know whether being zoo-based was relevant or important.
    Furthermore, the research does not appear to fully acknowledge the possibility of background changes in general knowledge and interest in orang-utans and palm oil during the study period. There is an indication of an increase in knowledge of and concern for orang-utans and palm oil issues among the wider population, not just zoo visitors, during the 18 month study period. This may have been unrelated to the success or otherwise of the campaign, and instead result from a more general emerging awareness.
    I also find it interesting that purchasing a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo was considered as a behavior indicative of commitment to orang-utan conservation, and thus used a benchmark of success of the campaign. Selling more zoo tours might indicate success in marketing, rather than improved conservation awareness.
    In our quest for conservation solutions, let’s not confuse the urgent need to improve conservation awareness and education with zoos’ apparent need to justify and improve their own programmes – the two are not necessarily the same.

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