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Madi Vorva (left) with zoo guests during Orangutan Awareness Weekend.
It’s not every day you get to meet a real life conservation hero. Meet Madi Vorva. In 9th grade and an active Girl Scout, she’s a teen Jane Goodall working to save orangutans. In November 2009, Madi visited Brookfield Zoo, traveling from Plymouth, Michigan to participate in the International Orangutan Awareness Weekend, where she had the opportunity to meet Tropic World keeper staff.

Madi’s love for this great ape goes back to 6th grade. A devoted Girl Scout, Madi was working toward earning the Bronze Award, a recognition that requires you to raise awareness about an important issue. Madi’s research for this award led her to focus on orangutans and their plights – palm oil plantations, illegal pet trade, and rainforest destruction. In regards to the threat of palm oil, Madi realized the Girl Scout cookies she and her friends had sold for years contained the crop that is destroying the orangutans’ rainforest home.

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil from the fruit of the African oil palm. Next to soybean oil, palm oil is the second-most widely produced edible oil, growing in popularity because it’s trans fat free. In addition to being used in cookies, crackers, and other snack items, palm oil is used in many cosmetics, bath products, is being considered for potential use as bio-fuel, and even pet food. As the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra are clear cut for palm oil plantations – through illegal logging or widespread burning – the already small orangutan population becomes even smaller.

Cookie Cutter
Shocked at the discovery that palm oil was a key ingredient in their cookies, Madi and her friend Rhiannon made a pledge to not only stop selling Girl Scout cookies, but to raise awareness about the devastating effects unsustainable palm oil has on orangutans. To learn as much as possible, they joined renowned primatologist Jane Goodall’s youth program Roots and Shoots, which is devoted to making positive changes for the environment, communities, and animals. Madi says, “Dr. Jane Goodall has always been a hero of mine.”

Madi Vorva and Brookfield Zoo keeper Danielle FogartyOver the next three years, Madi devoted her personal as well as her academic time to raising awareness about orangutans and the palm oil crisis. She’s hosted three National Orangutan Weeks at school, participated in letter writing campaigns, raised over $4,000 for orangutan conservation funds through palm-oil free bake sales and school dances, and even met with representatives from Little Brownie Bakers – one of two Girl Scout cookie producers and distributers.

As if they’re not busy enough, the teens are also members of Orangutan Outreach, an affiliate of Borneo Orangutan Survival, the largest primate rescue project in the world. (Madi’s also a founder of Orangutan Outreach Forest School 101, a program geared towards young supporters of orangutan conservation. (Go to http://www.redapes.org to learn more.)

All of Madi’s and Rhiannon’s great work didn’t go unnoticed, as they were both invited to attend the 2008 Great Lakes Roots and Shoots conference in Chicago and present their project to none other than Jane Goodall, their initial inspiration to protect orangutans. Madi was further honored when Ms. Goodall signed their letter petition to keep Girl Scout cookies palm oil free. The following year, Madi was invited to the Roots and Shoots Great Lakes Region, Regional Youth Summit, but this time as a presenter.

Active Listening
The conference in Chicago created a whirlwind of publicity, as Madi was interviewed by Ann Arbor News and “Fox and Friends,” a national television station, which gave them a platform to talk about orangutan conservation. Madi says, “Girl Scouts need to see this as a win-win situation. Awareness about palm oil, orangutans, and the rainforest is created, but this also shows that Girl Scouts listen to their girls.”

Madi’s now working on a new Girl Scout project – Girl Advocacy Summit. She says this new venture will focus on helping girls become better advocates through five steps of success, “…passion, perseverance, confidence, courage, and leadership. We also have the chance to raise awareness about causes and give girls a voice. We will also have the opportunity to tell the girls our story, and the affects palm oil is having on the rainforest.”