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Halloween doesn't have to be scary for wildlife

Posted by: Bobbi Miller, Conservation

When we think of October, we think of bright, cool days and brisk nights; early, golden sunsets; things that are scary and go bump in the night; and Halloween with the kids all dressed up and ready to go door to door looking for candy and treats. It’s a time of creepy, spine-tingling excitement for young and old alike.

Your Halloween candy choices can be a treat for wildlife, no trick! Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

But while we’re enjoying those crisp, clear days and chilly evenings, the people and wildlife in Borneo, Indonesia and nearby countries are dealing with thick, choking smoke. People there are wearing masks for a very different reason this Halloween, and it's all related directly to our candy.

Borneo's Gunung Palung National Park shrouded in smoke. Photo courtesy Tim Laman.

Wait, what?

How does our Halloween candy relate to fires halfway around the world?

Simple: most candy includes palm oil, and the bulk of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. In order to produce palm oil (the world’s fastest growing vegetable oil), tropical rain forest and peat lands are being converted to agricultural land. The fastest way to do that is through fire.

A young elephant in an oil palm plantation. Photo courtesy of Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation Project, a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife.

Not only do these fires decimate tropical rain forests that house tigers, Asian elephants, hornbills and orangutans, but they also include peat lands that, when drained and lit on fire, can smolder for weeks, releasing hundreds of years of sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere.

NASA satellite image, September 24, 2015, shows smoke from fires burning on islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Photo copyright: Adam Voiland (NASA Earth Observatory) and Jeff Schmaltz (LANCE MODIS Rapid Response).

The thick smoke from these fires has caused people as far away as the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to don surgical masks just to go outside. Flights in the impacted countries have been delayed or canceled due to smoke, and many schools have been closed due to spikes in respiratory illness. But it’s not just people suffering from the smoke that turns day into night; wildlife, including orangutans, are seriously impacted. 

Photo courtesy Tim Laman.

Many die from the fires, or are pushed into human-dominated landscapes where they are susceptible to poaching and hunting. Those that make it through the fires are confined to much smaller forest habitat patches with too many animals competing for too few resources. 

If you come to Woodland Park Zoo you’re accustomed to hearing our siamangs sing, but during times of fires in Indonesia, you don’t hear gibbon songs very often in the forest. Orangutans become more sluggish, waking up later and going to sleep earlier, likely not taking in the calories they need on a daily basis.  

While our Partner for Wildlife Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Project works with local officials to prevent fires and the destruction of peat forests in Borneo, you can take action right here at home.

Take Action

Use our wildlife-friendly Halloween candy list to purchase candy from companies that are committed to sourcing certified sustainable palm oil that is deforestation free. By making informed consumer choices, you can delight trick-or-treaters and save forests and wildlife a world away.

After all, while Halloween is here, the real scare is what’s at stake if we don’t take action.