Taronga Zoo champions sustainable palm oil

Visitors to the zoo’s new ‘Tiger Trek’ exhibit are transported into the heart of a national park in Sumatra, but leave with important information about how supporting sustainable palm oil can protect endangered species and their forest homes.

Sydney’s Taronga Zoo has unveiled new a Sumatran Tiger exhibit featuring an advocacy programme to educate the public about the importance of supporting sustainable palm oil. 

Launched on Sunday, the Tiger Trek exhibit recreates scenes from the Way Kambas National Park in Indonesia’s Sumatra province, and allows visitors to get close views of the zoo’s four Sumatran Tigers, all of whom were born in captivity.

In conjunction with the new exhibit, The Taronga Conservation Society Australia (TCSA), which runs the iconic zoo, launched the Raise Your Palm campaign featuring multiple educational videos in the Tiger Trek exhibit that explain the role of unsustainable palm oil in driving deforestation and tiger habitat loss in Indonesia.

The videos also explain how choosing products made with palm oil that is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) can reduce the commodity’s negative environmental impact. RSPO is the industry’s certifying body for environmentally and socially responsible palm oil, and is the sector’s most widely adopted sustainability programme.

Found in about half of all products on supermarket shelves ranging from food items to toiletries and household cleaners, palm oil is a popular commodity because it is cheap and versatile. But the sector’s rapid expansion to meet skyrocketing global demand has been blamed for widespread deforestation in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Gabon, where the crop is cultivated.

Sumatran Tigers are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, and there are only about 400 of them left in the wild. 

Belinda Fairbrother, manager of community conservation at the Taronga Conservation Society Australia (TCSA), which runs the iconic zoo, told Eco-Business that “by educating, empowering and helping consumers, and those involved in the supply chain, to make better choices, Taronga will be communicating and encouraging the transition towards a more responsible palm oil industry”. 

In addition to educating people about the sustainability value of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), the campaign also features a “digital supermarket” at the tiger exhibit. 

The digital supermarket at Taronga Zoo’s tiger exhibit, educating consumers on which of their household brands are using 100 per cent certified sustainable palm oil. Image: Eco-Business

This is a room where tablet devices display information about how much segregrated CSPO major consumer goods brands such as Nestle, Unilever, Ferrero and Arnotts are using. That is, palm oil that is certified sustainable because it has been cultivated responsibly rather than offset by purchasing certificates.

For companies that have not yet completed the transition to using only segregated CSPO in their operations, the public can hit a button on the tablets to send an email to their corporate affairs teams urging them to accelerate CSPO uptake.

They can also send congratulatory emails to Ferrero and Arnotts, which have already adopted 100 per cent CSPO in their manufacturing processes.

“Raise Your Palm celebrates Australian companies that only use RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil and encourages those who are yet to transition,” said Fairbrother.

Calum Russell, head of sustainable business, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Australia, noted that the exhibit was “extremely well done”, because it is immersive in its story-telling, and allows consumers to see which companies are taking real action on the issue.

“The beautiful tigers help emphasise the importance of the issue and will hopefully inspire people to act,” he added. 

By educating, empowering and helping consumers to make better choices, and those involved in the supply chain, Taronga will be communicating and encouraging the transition towards a more responsible palm oil industry.

Belinda Fairbrother, community conservation manager, Taronga Conservation Society Australia

Boycott boycotts 

The campaign also debunks the commonly held view that palm oil, in any form, is a problematic commodity to be avoided. This is evidenced by a wide variety of consumer products being marketed as “palm oil-free”, and the recent launch of the “Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme” by a non-profit group. 

As TCSA’s Fairbrother put it: “Palm oil is not only important in feeding global populations, but it is relied upon in local communities in growing regions to bring them out of poverty. The oil itself is not the problem – the problem lies with how and where it has been produced, which is why boycotting won’t work, it will just shift the problem to something else.”

WWF’s Russell echoed this view: “It is important to recognise that palm oil is by far the most productive vegetable oil presently produced at a large scale, and a shift to other vegetable oils will inevitably mean demand for more agricultural land and water to produce the same volume of oil.”

Rather than boycotting palm oil products, it is more productive to work with companies to move them towards sustainability, he said. While RSPO certified palm oil is essential, firms can also go further than that by making “no deforestation, peatland development and exploitation” pledges and pursuing stricter certifications such as RSPO NEXT—a voluntary certification offered by RSPO that is stricter than its main programme—Russell noted. 

Paul Maguire, director, guest experience, education and community programs, TCSA, told Eco-Business that ultimately, Taronga’s Tiger Trek experience aims to make a strong connection between visitors, tigers, and the solutions needed to secure the species’ survival.

“We know that conservation is more than just about wildlife—it’s about people,” said Maguire.

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