Raising Palm Oil Awareness

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Palm Oil Awareness Mission Statement:
To make a difference for wild orangutans by raising awareness about the palm oil crisis and encouraging people to take action by providing tools and information that will allow them to make globally responsible consumer choices. 

Since 2008 Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has strived to be an accurate and reliable resource, sharing information regarding palm oil.

Keywords: certified sustainable palm oil, product labelling and palm oil, consumer action, zoos and palm oil, zoos and orangutan conservation, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) membership

Background situation:
As sustainability practices have evolved over the past few years, consumer action and palm oil awareness messages have evolved as well. In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) began building stakeholder membership and involvement. RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil was not yet available, and therefore purchasing products made by member companies was not considered a wise choice by environmental or social sustainability standards. As a result, many zoos—including Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZoo)—felt that the best message to convey to zoo guests as consumers was to avoid purchasing goods containing palm oil.

Since then the RSPO has gained momentum in the certification of plantations and mills, while an increasing number of consumer goods manufacturers are making commitments and time-bound plans. Conservation staff from CMZoo travelled to Indonesia and Malaysia in 2010 and 2011 to research palm oil and orangutan conservation issues. After learning much more about the palm oil industry, oil seed crops, economic issues in Indonesia and Malaysia, RSPO principles and criteria, and sustainability issues, CMZoo changed its palm oil messaging in 2010. CMZoo now feels quite strongly that support of, and involvement in, the RSPO is key to addressing the palm oil crisis, promoting sustainable best practice, and driving change.

Here are CMZoo’s main objectives surrounding palm oil:

  1. Become a leader in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the go-to resource for palm oil awareness information and tools.
  2. By sharing CMZoo’s resource kit with other AZA zoos, palm oil issues can be communicated to vast numbers of zoo guests. CMZoo envisions a day when unsustainable palm oil is a known environmental issue in the majority of US households.
  3. CMZoo will assist with consumer action, with the goal of encouraging more companies to join the RSPO and use certified sustainable palm oil.

CMZoo’s Palm Oil Awareness Campaign is funded through the zoo’s Quarters for Conservation (Q4C) programme, and the Q4C committee and zoo management are committed to the project’s success. Every admission fee includes 25 cents which is allocated to the Q4C programme, and guests can vote for one of six projects at a kiosk in the zoo’s entry plaza. Although the zoo has done fairly well despite the struggling economy, a catastrophic wildfire in the Colorado Springs area greatly affected tourism during the summer of 2012, making it difficult to fund expensive projects such as a palm oil shopping guide app for smart phones.

CMZoo’s Palm Oil Awareness materials are being utilised by many zoos. In addition, general web-users and students have given feedback that they are utilising and appreciate CMZoo’s comprehensive web page on this issue.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staff in Sumatra 2010

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staff in Sumatra 2010 ©Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Options and action:
In 2008 several CMZoo staff members began asking questions about palm oil and it quickly became apparent that no one knew the answers. How significant is the threat of palm oil cultivation compared to other threats to wild orangutans? What is the RSPO? What should zoos be telling their guests about palm oil? What actions can people in the US take to help orangutans? Can zoos provide opportunities for their guests to take action? These were just a few of the issues CMZoo needed to explore.

The President/CEO of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo challenged the animal care manager of primates and carnivores to become an expert on the palm oil crisis. What started as an internet research project then developed into an extensive Palm Oil Awareness programme involving on-grounds activities and signage as well as a huge presence on our website, including a complete toolkit. Every year, the project’s scope has grown to include new resources, information, and tools. Here are just some examples:

  • An .ftp site was created to make very large files available to other zoos, such as layered graphics which enable any zoo to modify the images or messages.
  • In 2010 CMZoo became the first zoo to join the RSPO, and representatives from CMZoo attended the RSPO RT9 conference (9th roundtable) and voted in GA8 (8th general assembly) in 2011. As an environmental NGO member of the RSPO, CMZoo has a voice and can influence the direction of policies and processes within the RSPO.
  • In 2010 and 2011 CMZoo led ground-truthing research trips to Indonesia and Malaysia to learn more about the palm oil industry, RSPO certification, reforestation projects, ecotourism, and orangutan conservation efforts, as well as threats to orangutans and other wildlife. Staff members from other AZA institutions travelled with CMZoo on both trips. CMZoo worked with numerous conservation organisations in Indonesia and Malaysia throughout these travels.
  • In 2010 CMZoo presented at the National AZA conference and also organised a large group discussion.
  • To investigate the progress of AZA institutions in relation to palm oil awareness campaigns, we created and facilitated a survey for all institutions. The survey helped determine a baseline so that we will know what change (if any) occurs over the next several years. (See graphs for preliminary results.)
  • In 2010, 2011, and 2012 CMZoo presented palm oil awareness research and updates at the Orangutan SSP (Species Survival Plan) Husbandry Workshop.
  • The planners of the first ever gibbon conference in the US asked if CMZoo could present on palm oil awareness, and our presentation was very well received in June 2012.
  • The EMA (Elephant Managers Association) conference host zoo requested a CMZoo presentation on palm oil awareness, which is scheduled for November 2012.
  • In 2012 CMZoo participated in the National AZA Expo and distributed over 200 DVDs containing the toolkit files available at the .ftp site.
  • Red Ape Rally Days are held at the zoo during spring break. These include several days of festivities and activities such as letter writing, colouring, t-shirt painting, and a grocery shopping game.
  • Palm oil awareness is raised at various Earth Day event venues.
  • A palm oil awareness video was created, which numerous zoos have requested permission to use at their facilities (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJOrgAE8XMw ).
  • CMZoo created and moderates a palm oil listserv that currently has 198 members (as of October 2012). The listserv is a forum for sharing information and news about palm oil.
  • CMZoo periodically updates an RSPO member shopping guide to reflect new members and more brand names. In 2011 CMZoo released a smart-phone-friendly shopping guide as well.
  • Prior to the RSPO’s release of a sustainable palm oil logo, CMZoo saw a need for a logo and raised the issue with the RSPO. CMZoo created an “Orangutan Friendly Palm Oil” logo for use on products which contain 100% certified sustainable palm oil. The RSPO has since released a logo as well.
Sumatran Orangutan 'Abdul' 2010

Sumatran Orangutan ‘Abdul’ 2010 ©Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Outcomes and conclusion:
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is at different points of meeting its various palm oil objectives:

1. Become a leader in the AZA and the go-to resource for palm oil awareness information and tools. CMZoo has accomplished this objective.

  • The website for the Orangutan SSP (Species Survival Plan) has posted this information: “The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, CO, has taken the lead in palm oil education for the AZA. Visit the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo website to learn about palm oil, its impact on orangutans and other species, and what you can do about the crisis. You can also download a wallet-size shopping guide to help you make good choices when shopping, and many other resources to help you become an informed consumer.” (source: orangutanssp.org/palm_oil)
  • The gibbon SSP and EMA (Elephant Managers Association) have asked CMZoo to present on palm oil issues at conferences.
  • At least 40 zoos and aquariums in the US are utilising CMZoo’s resource kit, according to the January 2012 palm oil awareness survey, and many more institutions have shown great interest and requested a DVD toolkit at the AZA National Conference.

2. By sharing CMZoo’s resource kit with other AZA zoos, palm oil issues can be communicated to vast numbers of zoo guests. CMZoo envisions a day when unsustainable palm oil is a known environmental issue in the majority of US households. 

  • By collecting information from staff at US zoos via Survey Monkey, CMZoo was able to compile the following data regarding Palm Oil messaging at US zoos:

2011 graph2012 graph


  • CMZoo has not focused on measuring the number of US households which are palm-oil-aware.
  • Anecdotally CMZoo staff has observed that returning guests are more likely to know that unsustainable palm oil is an environmental issue, but the zoo feels that there is much work to be done in this area.

3. CMZoo will assist with consumer action, with the goal of encouraging more companies to join the RSPO and use certified sustainable palm oil. 

  • CMZoo was in close contact with some companies before they joined the RSPO. Some examples are Justin’s, Girl Scouts of the USA, and Mars. Whether their conversations with CMZoo had any effect on these companies’ decisions to join the RSPO is not known.
  • Many US companies have become members of the RSPO in the past few years, a number of them very large-scale such as Kraft and Walmart. The end result is consistent with CMZoo’s objective.

The number of US zoos sharing palm oil messages has increased from 2011 to 2012, which is exactly the trend that Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was hoping for. The majority of zoos in 2011 were either not sharing palm oil messages with zoo guests or they were sharing conflicting messages. In 2012 there was a very significant decrease in these categories from the year before. In addition, the number of zoos sharing the message that consumers should purchase products from RSPO member companies increased from 12% to 35%, which is a very exciting trend.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo shares its palm oil awareness messages and toolkit with other zoological institutions, which enables them to launch or expand their palm oil awareness programmes. CMZoo has presented at numerous conferences and created an .ftp site to facilitate this knowledge-sharing among US zoos regarding palm oil.

CMZoo firmly believes that boycotting palm oil is not a realistic or responsible solution to the palm oil crisis. Only through strong support and participation in the RSPO as well as sharing messages and action steps about sustainable palm oil with large numbers of zoo guests will zoos effect positive change for everyone involved, including orangutans and other wildlife.

Prepared by: Dina Bredahl
Position: Animal Care Manager
Organisation: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Contact: palmoil@cmzoo.org
Date: October 4, 2012