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Large-nosed Proboscis monkey faces challenge from loggers, farmers
By Hope Babowice | Daily Herald Columnist

Danielle Fogarty, a senior keeper in the primate department at Brookfield Zoo, holds up a poster illustrating what kind of candy contains palm oil, and what kind is palm-oil-free.


Courtesy Brookfield Zoo

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Published: 5/5/2010 12:00 AM

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Check these out

The Vernon Area Library in Lincolnshire suggest these titles on Proboscis monkeys and how to save our planet:

• "The Proboscis Monkey," by Jody S. Rake

• "Baboons and Other Old World Monkeys," by Steven A. Horak

• "Primates: From Howler Monkeys to Humans," by Erin Pembrey Swan

• "Focus on Indonesia," by Sally Morgan

• "True Green Kids: 100 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet," by Kim McKay

• "Endangered Planet," by David Burnie

• "What's It Like, Living Green?" by Jill Ammon Vanderwood

Students in Rachel Zabel's fourth-grade class at Hawthorn Elementary North in Vernon Hills asked: "Where does the Proboscis monkey live, and why does he have such a big nose?"

A proboscis is a large appendage that protrudes from the face. Mosquitoes have them, elephants have them and so do Proboscis monkeys.

The male Proboscises have huge noses, flat and oval-shaped and so long that their nose extends below their mouths. Female Proboscis monkeys also have large noses, but not quite as large as males.

The entire population of Proboscis monkeys lives in the forests of Borneo, a large island in Southeast Asia. The countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei share the island. Proboscis monkeys have some unusual traits. Unlike many primates, they are terrific swimmers. The males are twice the size of females.

"The males vocalize. The larger nose adds to the tone of the vocalization, a 'key-honk' sound that displays a warning to other males to stay away," said Craig Demitros, associate curator for primates at Brookfield Zoo.

Some scientists have speculated that the large nose on the males might be an attraction for females, what Demitros called the peacock principle.

These monkeys have a very specialized diet that cannot be reproduced in captivity; that's why you don't see them in zoos. They prefer budding tree leaves and unripened fruit for their meals. Most animals would find these items hard to digest, but a Proboscis' digestive system uses a special fermentation process which extends the monkeys' bellies, making them quite round.

In only three generations, the Proboscis monkey population has been slashed in half with only about 1,000 now living. The Red List, published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and National Resources, reports that these endangered monkeys are threatened by habitat destruction.

In particular, an ingredient in many products, palm oil or palm kernels, is responsible for much of the destruction. Loggers and farmers are slashing the rain forests at the rate of thousands of acres per hour to replace them with palm oil plantations. This is causing big problems for Proboscis monkeys, orangutans and other forest dwellers and is also responsible for the depletion of critical peat swamps that act as sponges for carbon dioxide.

"There's a palm oil crisis in Southeast Asia," Demitros said. "People have been destroying forests to plant palms for palm oil, which is used in food and other products like makeup. It's in about 10 percent of all products."

What you buy at the grocery store can make a difference for Proboscis monkeys and other animals living in the forests of Borneo.

"Consumers can have an effect on these companies," Demitros said.

Brookfield Zoo is actively involved in educating consumers about the dangers of destructive farming in places like Borneo. Look for posters at the zoo that highlight food choices without palm oil. Brookfield's ice cream shop, "Scoops," located across from Baboon Island at the south end of the zoo, sells palm-oil-free Breyer's Ice Cream.