Feb 27
Dolphins are Key to Learning Community Pilot Program

A new pilot program at the Indianapolis Zoo is bringing together students from Indianapolis Public School's Key Learning Community and a pod of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins for an adventure you can't quite match in the classroom.

More than 400 students, from kindergarten to high school, are getting to take part in these up-close, hands-on experiences, part of a program aimed at engaging these young students and creating connections with these amazing animals.

"Making a connection is the first step in understanding and ultimately caring," said Tolly Foster, program development and evaluation specialist at the Zoo. "It is our hope to build on this experience for future programs."

Whether it's a poolside encounter or actually getting in the water with the dolphins, these students are working side-by-side with trainers, learning cues for behaviors, training techniques and even giving a few good belly rubs, all to understand exactly what it takes to care for and work with these intelligent and charismatic marine mammals.

 "It is awesome to overhear the stories and reflections from scholars as they return," Key Learning Community's principal Sheila Dollaske said. "Even the ones who put on a "tough guy" persona come back talking about getting a kiss from Jett or waving at Orin."

Planning the Program

A challenge from an executive staff member set this project in motion, creating an opportunity for Zoo staff to create lasting, once-in-a-lifetime memories for these students.

With initial conversations in October, 2014, the experiences took several months of planning and preparation, but came together for an impactful program that the trainers, students and dolphins enjoy being a part of.

The students first learned about ocean conservation and a few fun facts about the pod during a classroom session in the Polly H. Hix Institute for Research and Conservation. Then students were broken into groups, each participating in a dolphin encounter specifically designed for their grade levels.

"It's awesome because a lot of kids come in nervous … and by the end of the session they're naming dolphins, they're all excited, they're like 'me next, me next,'" Senior Marine Mammal Trainer Mandy Goin said of the program.

Changing the Future

Many animals that live in the world's oceans are highly endangered, and although the International Union for Conservation of Nature does not list dolphins as an endangered species, their ocean habitat is under tremendous pressure. The dolphins at the Zoo help to address many of those issues, including warming, acidification and pollution.

Members of the Indianapolis Zoo's pod are ambassadors for their species, helping people of all ages learn the importance of protecting the world's waterways and caring about safeguarding the wonderful wildlife that call the ocean home.

"We have seen many students come in with some apprehensions about the dolphins but there is nothing more rewarding than to see them leave with big smiles and a new appreciation for the animals," Foster said.

And for some Key Learning students, that newfound appreciation may shape their future careers.

"I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most people, and I just want to say thank you. I always wanted to be a veterinarian but I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. This trip made my option clear," Key Learning student Armonie wrote in a letter to Zoo staff after her visit.

According to Principal Dollaske it has been a truly transformational opportunity for the students.

"The positive impact we have seen on our scholars since the dolphin encounters started is incredible," Dollaske said.

Key Learning students call themselves "Key Warriors." And it looks like the future may have a few new warriors for wildlife.

Feb 26
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – But That’s How Polar Bears Like It

With the temperatures falling outside, February is the perfect time to celebrate one of the most iconic cold-weather critters on the planet — polar bears!

Feb. 27 is International Polar Bear Day and there are countless reasons to recognize these hardy mammals. The Indianapolis Zoo has a polar bear named Tundra who came to the Zoo on May 9, 1988. She will be celebrating her 29 birthday this year! Tundra loves her arctic home in Indy and thrives in her habitat. She also serves as an ambassador to her species, helping to highlight the need for conservation and the threats polar bears face in the wild.

 Polar bears live in the arctic, which is one of the coldest environments on Earth with the average winter temperature of -30° F. Brrr! As the largest carnivore on land, polar bears are perfectly suited to thrive in their environment. Their white fur is easily camouflaged in the icy, snowy habitat while the skin under their fur is black, which keeps heat locked in. With all of these natural survival characteristics, polar bears are the master of their environment and have no natural predators, except one: global warming.

What's Causing Polar Bears' Decline?

As more people inhabit the earth, more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are being released into the atmosphere because of the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing and other human activities. These and other factors are contributing to global warming.

The rising temperatures are causing the ice caps to melt, leaving polar bears with less of the habitat they use to rest, breed and hunt. As the ice continues to melt, recede and move, the polar bears have to move with it to survive. A U.S. Geological Survey projects that two-thirds of polar bears will disappear by 2050 if the same trends continue.

Conservation in the Wild

Fortunately, some are taking the plunge to help conserve this beautiful species. Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, the chief scientist of Polar Bear International, has researched polar bear ecology for more than 30 years. His research revealed that polar bears' survival relies heavily on sea ice and helped to have them classified as a threatened species because of the decline in their ice homes. Because of his many years helping with conservation efforts, Amstrup won the Indianapolis Prize in 2012, which is the world's leading award for animal conservation.  Plus, Polar Bear International offers lots of great information and tips on how everyone can get involved and help save these lords of the Arctic.

Lend a Helping Paw

There are plenty of ways to help the polar bears right from your own home! Are you ready for a challenge — the thermostat challenge that is. In the winter, put your thermostat two degrees down; in the summer, put your thermostat two degrees up. Don't forget to grab a buddy to carpool and also turn off your car instead of idling it to help decrease emissions. These small changes can make a big difference in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. You can also pledge to make every day polar bear day by incorporating some of these energy-efficient tips into your own homes.

Feb 24
Caring for Critters in Cold Weather

Winter’s big chill has brought falling temperatures and snow to Central Indiana. At the Indianapolis Zoo, winter also brings some unique challenges for Zookeepers who take special care to ensure all of our animals are safe and happy throughout the coldest months of the year.

Many of the Zoo’s animals, especially those in our Forests and outdoor Oceans exhibits, welcome the frosty mornings and snowy days in January and February. Species like our Amur tigers, Alaskan brown bears, California sea lions, polar bear, Pacific walrus and red panda and others come from colder climates and are perfectly at home in Indiana’s cold winter weather.

These animals all have certain adaptations, like thick fur or layers of blubber, to help them handle the harsh conditions. Yet, we also make accommodations within exhibits help keep the animals comfortable in the cold.

For instance, one of the rocks inside the Tiger Forest is heated to give these big cats a warm, dry spot to lie down. And the pools inside the marine mammal exhibits are temperature regulated so that our walrus, seals and sea lions can swim in comfort. Keepers will also offer enrichment to help keep our animals active when they're outdoors.

Ice and snow are nothing new for these cold-weather critters, yet slick conditions are still a concern. Just like humans, animals can be injured if they slip on ice or mud. So the water features in many of the exhibits are drained in the winter to prevent them from freezing, and keepers inspect exhibits daily to ensure animals’ pathways are free from ice or other hazards. If the exhibit conditions are too slick, the keepers will hold animals indoors where they’ll be safe and warm.

Some Zoo animals that prefer more moderate temperatures, like many of the animals in our Plains and Flights of Fancy exhibits, we provide warmth and protection inside climate-controlled off-exhibit facilities that they can enjoy throughout the winter. During these months, keepers ensure these animals remain both physically and mentally active by providing engaging enrichment activities. And on those welcome days when warmer temperatures take over, even these animals will enjoy the outdoors.

Although some exhibits will be closed and animals remain inside on colder days, winter is still a great time for a visit. Our cold-weather critters tend to be more active at this time of year than they are during the warmer months. Of course, all of the Zoo’s indoor exhibits remain open, including the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, Oceans, Desert Dome, Dolphin Pavilion and Hilbert Conservatory in White River Gardens. Plus, with lighter crowds from January through mid-March, guests can enjoy more personal interactions with our animals.

So bundle up and come enjoy an epic winter adventure at the Zoo.

Feb 13
Getting to the Heart of Relationships in the Animal Kingdom

Boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers, heart-shaped cards — Valentine’s Day is an opportunity for people to express to their loved ones just how they feel.

But the ideas of love, dating and relationships aren’t exclusive to the human world. Let’s discover some fascinating fun facts about hearts, courtship and mating in the animal kingdom:

Straight From the Heart

For humans, hearts are synonymous with love and Valentine’s Day. But many animals have hearts that are specially suited to their size, shape and behavior.

Not surprisingly, African elephants have the largest heart of any land mammal, weighing on average between 26.5 to 46.3 pounds. The largest heart in all the animal kingdom belongs to the blue whale, whose heart can grow to the size of a small car and weigh up to 1,300 pounds.

Giraffes need an incredibly strong heart to pump blood throughout their long, lanky bodies. In fact, a giraffe’s heart generates twice the blood pressure of a human heart.

For a cheetah to achieve its incredible bursts of speed, its heart rate will more than double — accelerating from 120 bpm to 250 bpm — in mere seconds.

And it seems that some snakes really love … eating, that is. The size of a python’s heart will actually increase, swelling up to 40 percent in size before a meal and then shrinking back down again afterward.

Animal Magnetism

Like humans, animals have developed some interesting rituals for courtship.

Before seahorses breed, they’ll court for several days. The male and female swim side by side, encircle one another and hold tails before engaging in their “courtship dance.” After it’s all over, it’s the male that carries the eggs in his pouch and eventually gives birth.

Approaching a potential mate for the first time might be intimidating for humans, but male spotted hyenas are literally putting their lives at risk. Female hyenas call the shots in the courtship because they are significantly stronger and more aggressive than males. So when a male hyena approaches a new female, he does so very cautiously and retreats as soon as she notices him. He will then only try to mate when he’s reasonably confident he won’t be attacked.

While humans may sprits on cologne before a big date, ring-tailed lemurs prefer something a little more pungent. Male lemurs engage in stink fights by rubbing scent from their glands onto their tails then waving their tales at each other to waft the smell. The winner is the lemur that can stink out his opponent and catch a female’s attention.

When it comes to attracting a mate, for animals and humans alike, it often comes down to looks.

Peacocks are known for their showy plumage. Males fan out their brilliant tail feathers and strut about to attract females, who seem to prefer the male with the biggest and brightest train.

As an orangutan male reaches maturity, he begins to grow long hair and develop fleshy cheek pads called flanges. These traits appear more prominently in some males more than others, and in certain cases not at all. But females definitely show preference to the males with big flanges and long hair.

Status: In a Relationship

Though long-term relationships are pretty rare in the animal kingdom, many species are able to manage monogamy, mating either for life or at least extended periods.

As they swing through the forests in search of a potential partner, gibbons sing using loud calls that can be heard for long distances. But once they've found a mate, the songs change. Gibbons are mainly monogamous, and mated pairs will sing elaborate daily duets — each individual with its own part — to let other gibbons in the area know they’re off the market.

When it’s time to take a relationship to the next level, humans aren’t the only ones who declare their intensions by presenting their mate with a big rock. But while people prefer diamonds and other precious gems, male gentoo penguins scour for pretty pebbles to win over the females. If she accepts, she’ll place the pebble inside her nest, or she may choose to wait for a better offer. Either way, once a female chooses her male, gentoos generally mate for life.

And nothing says commitment quite like building a big home together. Bald eagles will build large nests that average about 5 feet in diameter. Nesting pairs will often return to the same nest year after year, building on a little bit each time, so nests can eventually become enormous. In fact, the largest bald eagle nest ever found was more than 9 feet wide, 20 feet high and weighed more than 2 tons!

Jan 20
Mission Madagascar: An Update From Prize Winner Pat Wright

Whether surrounded by the glitz and glamour of a gala, the wondering gazes of a group of students, or the flora and fauna of her beloved Madagascar, 2014 Indianapolis Prize winner Dr. Patricia Wright’s passion continues to establish her as a world-renowned force in animal conservation.

Pat’s prowess in the field has been recognized internationally since her time in Indianapolis, with her conservation contributions earning awards and features across a wide range of media, in addition to receiving an honorary degree from the university in Fianarantsoa.

Presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, which she calls a true honor, Pat was recognized alongside Nan Hauser for her dedication to whales, Sylvia Earle for ocean conservation and Birute Galdikas for orangutan efforts.

Along with making connections with Malagasy communities, Pat’s worked to spread her love of lemurs to even more audiences. She was a guest on Martha Stewart’s radio show, highlighted in an Australian children’s magazine and most recently welcomed CNN’s Parts Unknown host Anthony Bourdain to Ranomafana National Park for an episode in the show’s 2015 season.

In the months since the Gala, Pat released her newest book,“For the Love of Lemurs: My Life in the Wilds of Madagascar,” documenting her breakthroughs bringing lemurs back from the brink of extinction. The Prize winner continued celebrating successes during Ranomafana’s World Lemur Week, joining nearly a thousand people in the festivities. Full of lemur costumes, traditional dancing to lemur songs and other shows, Pat said it’s moments like these that show how the local residents are responding strongly to and supporting conservation efforts in the area.

In her continued work with Centre ValBio, the Madagascar National Park and the people of Madagascar, Pat reports a 50 percent decrease in deforestation in Ranomafana over the past five years. The governor has now declared that area a conservation success.

Jan 09
Scientific Evidence Connects Orangutan Calls and Human Speech

Data from Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center Used in New Study

With help from the Indianapolis Zoo, scientists now have clues to the connections between great ape and human vocal behavior.

New research from the University of Amsterdam, published in the journal PLOS ONE, provides evidence that orangutan vocalizations may be useful models for the evolution of human speech.

Dr. Rob Shumaker, the Zoo’s Supervising Vice President of Conservation, Science and Education, is a co-author on the publication.

Lead author Dr. Adriano Lameira and researchers from across the world analyzed two never-before-heard calls from a female Bornean orangutan,Tilda, an orangutan at the Cologne Zoo in Germany.

Tilda’s sounds showed similarities to rhythms in human speech, and included voiceless calls or clicks, as well as voiced calls known as faux-speech. These both present similarities to consonants and vowels, the two basic building blocks of human speech, suggesting for the first time that great apes are able to control sounds and vocalize voluntarily. Prior to this research, many held the belief that orangutans’ vocalizations were only reflexive.

By using the largest database of assembled orangutan calls, including audio samples from several apes at the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, to compare with Tilda’s, this research offers a potential origin for speech evolution.

“We’re very proud to collaborate with Dr. Lameira on this important work.” Dr. Rob said. “The results expand our understanding of the impressive range of orangutan mental abilities.”

The Indianapolis Zoo enjoys an ongoing collaboration with Dr. Lameira and looks forward to his future publications.

Researchers at the Center offer the apes computer-based cognitive tasks on a daily basis, and they eagerly participate. These opportunities for learning and problem solving are conducted in a demonstration format with visitors. By directly witnessing the intelligence of orangutans, the Zoo inspires people to advance their conservation.

Dec 04
Race-a-Cheetah, Save a Species

One, two, three.

That's all the time it takes for the world's fastest land animal to race up to 60 miles per hour — an acceleration that leaves even most cars in the dust. But despite its speed, the vulnerable cheetah will need some help to outrun the devastating effects of habitat loss, human conflict and the illegal wildlife trade.

Now in its fourth year, International Cheetah Day was created to recognize this beautiful species and raise awareness about their race against extinction.

Race for Survival

The oldest and most at risk of African cats, their current populations have dwindled from nearly 100,000 in 1900 to only 10,000. Today, cheetahs can only be found in 23 percent of their historic African range and are now extinct in more than 20 countries.

With hopes of reversing that trend, the Indianapolis Zoo opened its Cheetah: The Race for Survival exhibit in 2010, with a hope of engaging young visitors to care for the future of these felines and to generate direct funds for the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, one of many initiatives the Indianapolis Zoo supports. Dr. Laurie Marker, the founder of CCF and two-time Indianapolis Prize finalist, consulted on the exhibit and helped create one of the most popular attractions in the Zoo's Plains area. Race-a-Cheetah allows Zoo visitors to make their best attempt to outrun a light array that duplicates a cheetah's speed.

Along with demonstrating just how fast a cheetah can run, the attraction helps tell the story of cheetahs in the wild and support efforts to save their habitat in Africa. Since its opening, the Indianapolis Zoo has raised more than $64,300 for the CCF through Race-a-Cheetah.

It's a Cat and Dog World

A vast majority of cheetahs live outside protected areas, alongside human communities and therefore often get blamed for attacking domestic animals. To many farmers, cheetahs are seen as a detriment to their livelihoods rather than as a valued asset to the ecosystem. So, in addition to direct cheetah conservation, funds from Race-a-Cheetah help the CCF raise dogs used to guard livestock, reducing the inclination by farmers to trap or kill cheetahs.

CCF staff members train Kangal and Anatolian shepherds to act as protectors. Known for their physically imposing size, strength and threatening bark, these dogs have been utilized as livestock guardians in Turkey for thousands of years, bred for their attentive nature and ability to work in hot, arid climates. Instead of herding or moving the sheep, goats and other livestock, which can cause an attack, the dogs place themselves between the prey and predator, an intimidating presence, even on the African plains, that keeps cheetahs at bay.

By the end of 2013, the CCF's Livestock Guarding Dog program has placed nearly 500 dogs with farmers in Africa. After the success in Namibia, CCF is now assisting with further programming, including puppies heading to working farms in Tanzania and throughout the country.

Indianapolis Zoo visitors can get up close and personal with these guardians during seasonal Keeper chats in Plains, where guests can learn more about cheetahs and meet our own Kangal brother-sister duo, Solo and Ayla.

Check out more cheetah chatter here.

Dec 03
Elephants, Educators and the Ivory Effect

Inquisitive and intelligent, elephants have long been revered in books, films, even religion spanning international borders. Elephants and humans have shared a complex relationship throughout history, a story filled with awe, wonder and now tragedy. The desire for precious ivory has become a global phenomena causing heightened poaching, but few people know the true cost.

A staggering 96 elephants are killed each day in Africa by poachers who sell the elephant tusks on the black market — a crisis inspiring the creation of the 96 Elephants campaign through Wildlife Conservation Society. As a supporter of global conservation initiatives, the Indianapolis Zoo joined this endeavor to save the world's largest land animal.

With the United States ranked second only to China as the largest ivory market worldwide, efforts close to home carry an immense impact for this vulnerable species.

Bringing Conservation to the Classroom

Educators and students throughout Central Indiana and beyond have joined the Indianapolis Zoo in showing enthusiastic support for 96 Elephants. Projects have varied from simply building awareness to semester-long research delving into the conservation as well as the cultural and social issues surrounding the plight of Africa's elephants.

It all began locally with Lawrence Township teacher Sonya Schkabla and her fourth- through sixth-grade students whoshined a spotlight on the issue by writing brochures about animal conservation, creating posters to educate other students and staff, and signing the 96 Elephants petition. The group even gathered 96 students for 96 elephants, posing for a photo to illustrate the crisis.

Since then 71 educators have pledged to bring awareness to their students, spanning elementary to collegiate-level assignments, from science to art classes. Groups include Laura Brentlinger's first graders at Deer Meadow Primary School, who created a bulletin with more than 96 pictures of elephants, as well as Brooke Winebrenner's sixth graders at Central Noble Middle School, who created a showcase for the school on poaching and ivory, plus many more creative undertakings.

The Zoo hopes to exceed a total goal of 96 classrooms taking part, inspiring countless children to care about elephants and add a voice to efforts aimed at protecting their future.

From Feet to Funds

But help doesn't have to stop at schools. If you can put your mind to something, why not put your feet to something too?

Recently WCS and the Clinton Foundation joined forces with the TOMS Animal Initiative to create a specially designed classic-style shoe. The funds from shoe sales will help support saving African elephants, tackling the poaching crisis on three fronts: ending the killing, trafficking and demand.

Elephants and the Indianapolis Zoo

The Indianapolis Zoo is currently home to a herd of eight elephants. These incredible animals are ambassadors for their species, helping to highlight the need for continued conservation efforts. The Zoo follows the successes of 2010 Indianapolis Prize winner Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton with his organization Save the Elephants and also continues its work with many elephant-focused initiatives, including the International Elephant Foundation and the Tarangire Elephant Project.

Nov 21
Big on Size, Big on Personality: Zoo’s Biggest Babies Growing Up

When you think of a 2-year-old toddler words like cute, energetic and little may come to mind. Well, cute and energetic are definite descriptors for our youngsters, but they're far from little. Which youngsters are we talking about? Our baby elephants of course!

The Indianapolis Zoo's herd includes eight African elephants: Sophi, Tombi, Kubwa, Ivory, Zahara, Kedar, Kalina and Nyah. But it's the youngest calves that create some of the most amusing memories for Zoo keepers and guests alike.

We caught up with keepers recently to hear how 3-year-old Kalina and 2-year-old Nyah are growing up and the dynamic they've added to the Zoo's herd.


Since the moment she made her way into the world on July 20, 2011, Kalina has had an outgoing personality. Just minutes after she was born, even while keepers and veterinary staff were still checking her over, Kalina got up on her feet and insisted she get to her mom Kubwa for her first drink of milk!

Like any typical 3-year-old, Kalina is full of energy. She loves to play with tires and large plastic barrels, and her favorite snack is tree branches, especially larger logs that she can strip the bark from with her tusks.

Although Kalina still spends most of her time with her mom, she loves to spend time with "Auntie" Tombi, and they're often seen together near the pool in the elephant exhibit. Sometimes she'll even join in with Sophi or Kubwa for a mud or dust bath. Guests can often see Kalina in the middle of the yard with the other elephants surrounding her – anything to be the center of attention!

Not shy about demanding attention from her herd mates and keepers, Kalina has a zest for life and dives into activities full speed ahead.


Nyah, on the other hand, is a more laid back calf than Kalina. At 2 years old, she is the youngest elephant at the Zoo and was born on June 28, 2012. The daughter of Ivory and sister to Zahara, keepers say Nyah has an independent streak, but enjoys interacting with and learning from her sister.

Zahara, like any good big sister, lets Nyah join in her fun. Nyah loves to climb on Zahara and will even splash and dunk her in the pool when the weather is warm. When playtime comes to an end, Zahara watches out for Nyah, even standing over her as she naps.

Along with spending time with her sister and mom, Nyah is often seen with Sophi or on "play dates" with Kalina. The two calves wrestle and push, chase each other around and even play tug-of-war with their toy tires.

Not much seems to phase little Nyah, and as long as she has crunchy celery hearts to munch on, keepers say she takes the busy life of the herd in stride.

Let's Hear it for the Herd

Each of the Indianapolis Zoo's elephants has a unique personality – from Sophi, the trumpeting matriarch, to Kedar, the bull of the barn, each elephant adds an element that creates a very nurturing environment for these young calves to grow up in.

The Zoo is known worldwide for the calves that have been born and raised here. Research that began at the Zoo led to successful artificial insemination of elephants worldwide, and Ivory and Kubwa made history as the first of their species to deliver healthy calves by these alternative reproductive techniques.

According to keepers, when an elephant birth is expected here at the Zoo it is a very exciting time for everyone and it's always an amazing experience to welcome a new calf into the growing herd. Having family groups develop in the herd is very enriching for the elephants and rewarding for their keepers, who are devoted to providing excellent care for them.

To learn more about the Indianapolis Zoo's elephant herd and conservation efforts check out the Who's At the Zoo and Conservation Initiatives pages.

Nov 10
Highlighting Conservation Efforts For Orangutan Caring Week

In the Malay language, the word orangutan means "person of the forest." Yet orangutans are rapidly losing their native forest homes in Borneo and Sumatra, putting them on a dangerous track to become the first great ape to go extinct in recorded history.

"We can say with absolute certainty that right now this is a conservation crisis for wild orangutans," said Dr. Rob Shumaker, the Indianapolis Zoo's Vice President of Conservation and Life Sciences and one of the world's foremost authorities on orangutan cognition. "If current conditions don't change, this could very well be the last generation of wild orangutans."

In recognition of Orangutan Caring Week, a global celebration from Nov. 9-15, the Zoo is highlighting initiatives that promote orangutan conservation. Primary among those was the May opening of the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, which provides a home for Zoo's orangutans and raises awareness for this species' plight through research, education and conservation.  Additionally, the Zoo is committed to offering opportunities for the community to work together to create a positive future for one of the most endangered of the great apes.

Understanding Orangutans and Their Conservation Issues

Intelligent and charismatic, orangutans are creatures of the rainforest and are the only non-human great apes native to Asia. Their physiology is perfectly adapted for a life high in the forest canopy. With their long arms, hands with opposable thumbs and feet with opposable big toes, orangutans maneuver confidently through the treetops. The largest of all arboreal animals, orangutans travel the forest swinging from branch to branch, both hand over hand and sometimes grasping with a combination of all four appendages.

Orangutans are closely related to humans, sharing 96.4 percent of their DNA. Yet orangutans' extended social system is very different from humans. The least social of all the great apes, orangutans do not live in groups. While young orangutans will stay with their mothers for many years, adults typically spend long periods of time alone.

Each orangutan travels through a geographic area known as a home range, which may include many square miles of trees to provide all of the resources they need. However, many forest corridors have been interrupted or destroyed entirely by deforestation and conversion for agriculture, leaving individuals cut off from resources and unable to find mates. Wild orangutan populations have been steadily declining for decades and deforestation is the primary culprit.

Nearly 25,000 square miles of orangutan habitat has been destroyed or converted for other purposes in the past 20 years, and habitat loss continues at a rate of about 1-2 percent per year. In the past 35 years, deforestation has resulted in the loss of about 50,000 orangutans, and about 70 percent of remaining wild orangutans live outside of protected forests.

Yet the devastating effects of deforestation are impacting humans as well. In a story making headlines globally, Sumatra, one of only two countries where wild orangutans still live, has been hit hard by floods and landslides. Stoked by torrential rains sweeping through Indonesia, these disasters have inundated dozens of villages and left tens of thousands homeless.

"There's not just a need to maintain a healthy forest for the sake of orangutans, it also has huge benefits for the human populations as well," said Shumaker. "Once we lose the forest, not only do we lose all of the wildlife, there are issues with erosion, poor water quality, poor air quality and a greater vulnerability to severe weather effects like the flooding being experienced right now in Sumatra. Preserving the habitat is a win-win."

Reforestation Efforts

Long before the May opening of the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, the Zoo has supported reforestation efforts in Borneo. Shumaker began the Zoo's outreach in 2013 by visiting Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan, Borneo, to study the habitat loss and offer a proposal to help in the reforestation of the area.

Additionally, the Zoo supports the Orangutan Kutai Project led by Dr. Anne Russon, who has studied orangutans for more than 30 years. The project started in 2009 to protect the seriously endangered orangutan population and recover critical habitat that has been largely destroyed.

In areas where the forest is already gone, one of the best strategies is to start reforestation as soon as possible," said Shumaker.

To make conservation outreach an integral element of the new Center, the Zoo created opportunities for guests to become active partners in reforestation efforts. With the simple swipe of a credit card at kiosks located at the Center's exit, visitors can give to a reforestation project that grows, plants and maintains new trees. In less than six months, Zoo guests have already given $15,800, with new donations coming in every day to help rebuild depleted sections of forest habitat, benefiting orangutans and thousands more rainforest species.

"Saving orangutans — or any other species — takes a complex and multi-level commitment, and it's exciting to see the people of our community joining us in such a thoughtful and strategic task as reforestation," said Mike Crowther, the Zoo's President and CEO. "We think most Hoosiers understand that when you have a vision, develop a plan, acquire resources, work hard and follow through, you can make progress. Our community is making a real contribution toward ensuring our children and their children will continue sharing a world enriched by orangutans, while they're also creating a more sustainable future for all of us."

Promoting Sustainable Palm Oil

Palm oil is at the heart of the deforestation issue and a critical component in the conservation conversation. A cheap and edible vegetable oil taken from the fruits of oil palm trees, palm oil is used in more than 50 percent of manufactured items readily available at any grocery store — from candy and foods, to cosmetics and beauty care products, to plastics and even fuel.

Nearly 85 percent of the world's palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, and more than half of plantations established in those two countries since 1990 have occurred at the expense of natural forests. Because palm oil is so lucrative to Indonesia's economic stability, any solution must benefit both humans and orangutans alike.

The Zoo has taken a stand on illegal and unsustainably managed palm oil plantations by joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2013. Additionally, the Zoo encourages consumers to do their part by supporting companies working toward using 100 percent sustainable palm oil.

"Boycotting palm oil isn't the answer," said Shumaker. "We really need to support companies that are moving forward with transition plans for certified sustainable palm oil. It's not going to be quick or easy for anyone, but these companies deserve tremendous credit for recognizing the need and responding quickly."

A growing number of companies are making strides toward that goal. Recently Dunkin' Donuts and Krispy Kreme announced sustainability pledges along with plans for measurable changes in the coming years, including working with suppliers and purchasing cooperatives to source palm oil that is 100 percent traceable to mills and plantations.

Additionally, Zoo sponsor Endangered Species Chocolate is among several companies currently using 100 percent sustainable palm oil and also making extra efforts by donating to animal conservation. The Zoo applauds these and all other corporate commitments to minimize the impact on wildlife and help create a brighter future for orangutans.

Public Education Opportunities

The Zoo believes educating people about the amazing animals inhabiting our planet is a crucial first step to empowering them to support conservation efforts to save these species.

"One of the best things we can do at the Indianapolis Zoo is to educate people about orangutans' abilities and encourage them to add their voice to the conversation about the state of orangutans in the wild," said Shumaker.

The Center's Tim M. Solso Learning Studio offers daily opportunities for guests to watch as orangutans engage in voluntarily cognitive research tasks with Shumaker and Dr. Chris Martin, the Zoo's Postdoctoral Research Associate.

Since the Center's opening, Martin has begun his fun and fascinating research with the orangutans, utilizing a dual-screened interactive station that allows humans and orangutans cooperatively to complete tasks side by side. Shumaker's work with the orangutans focuses on number sequencing and symbol comprehension tasks. He and Azy, the Zoo's dominant male orangutan, have been collaborating for decades on this cognitive research while the Zoo's other orangutans have begun participating more recently.

The public research demonstrations provide an immersive, educational experience, allowing visitors to identify with, understand and appreciate orangutans. The hope is that visitors walk away with a deeper understanding of this endangered species and in turn feel inspired to care about orangutan conservation.

In addition, the Zoo will host a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a small group of travelers to learn and explore the habitat of wild orangutans during an Indonesian expedition from July 24-Aug. 10 2015. Escorted by Shumaker, guests will see these great apes attending "forest school," experience the natural beauty of Kutai National Park and appreciate the region's rich cultural diversity. Reservations for this unforgettable, educational trip are currently being accepted.

"Orangutans are fascinating, charming, and like us, endlessly curious," said Crowther. "Whether you're watching our orangutans participate in learning demonstrations here at the Zoo or watching their wild cousins move through the forests of Borneo or Sumatra, orangutans leave a lasting impression on people that compels us to join in protecting them."

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