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Zoo auctions orangutan art as NFTs, $550 starting bid for first-of-its-kind conversation effort


Friday is international orangutan day, and the Oklahoma City Zoo is marking it with a special occasion: an auction of 20 artworks digitally painted by Elok, the zoo’s 21-year-old orangutan. The works come in the form of NFTs, a type of unique digital collectible, that will be auctioned off on the NFT platform OpenSea until noon on Aug. 22.

While several organizations have previously sold NFTs to benefit animal conservation, this appears to be the first time an animal has created digital artworks for an NFT series.

Elok painted the art pieces as a daily enrichment activity meant to keep him healthy and active. By using a modified paintbrush and an Xbox equipped with a sensor Elok painted a variety of colors on a digital canvas from his indoor habitat. In exchange, he got his favorite treats: popcorn, prunes, and animal crackers.

Here is a digital painting made by Elok that the zoo is keeping but is similar to the 20 that will be up for auction on Friday:

Elok, a 21-year-old Sumatran orangutan at the Oklahoma City Zoo, painted a series of NFTs like this that will be auctioned off on Friday to raise funds for animal conservation.

Courtesy of the Oklahoma City Zoo

Elok’s care staff give him a daily enrichment activity such as puzzles or digging through hay in order to stimulate his senses and challenge him mentally. Elok has painted on physical canvases, but this was the first time he tried digital painting, said Tracey Dolphin, the OKC Zoo’s curator of primates.

Elok is very creative and likes using tools, Dolphin said, so despite the challenge, he eventually became interested in the new experience.

“You could see that learning as he went through the process and once he understood it, then he got a little bit more into it,” Dolphin told Fortune.

All three species of orangutans, Sumatran, Bornean, and Tapanuli, are critically endangered and they are at increased risk of extinction because of bushmeat hunting, construction of roads, agriculture, and illegal trade in their native habitats. Globally, 60% of primate species are now threatened with extinction and 75% have declining populations, according to the zoo.

Rebecca Snyder, the zoo’s director of conservation and science said that since Elok is a Sumatran Orangutan, the zoo chose a Sumatra-based charity, the Leuser Conservation Forum, as the first that will benefit from the Friday auction. The funds will directly help preserve Elok’s native habitat on the Indonesian island, she said.

“They do patrols of the protected area there, which is important because habitat loss is a big problem for orangutans,” Snyder told Fortune. “That’s one of the main reasons that they are critically endangered. Even though an area might be designated as protected, that doesn’t mean that people don’t still enter those areas and sometimes engage in illegal activity.”

All proceeds from Friday’s auction will be collected by the zoo’s nonprofit, the Oklahoma Zoological Society which will distribute the money to conservation organizations working to protect wild orangutans and other endangered species.

In February, WWF-UK, a non-governmental organization focused on wilderness conservation, sold a series of photos of endangered animals as NFTs but halted the sale after one day in response to criticism over the energy used in creating the digital tokens.

The Oklahoma zoo appears to have decided that the benefits of raising money for primate habitats outweighs the relatively modest environmental impact of creating Elok’s NFTs, which were minted on the Ethereum blockchain.

It’s unclear how much money Elok’s work might raise. In recent months, even NFTs by lesser known artists have fetched thousands of dollars, and with a starting price tag of 0.3 Ether, or about $550 as of Wednesday, the OKC Zoo is hoping their campaign will be just as successful, attracting conservation advocates and art collectors alike.

“Most people won’t have an opportunity to see a wild orangutan and a lot of people don’t know what’s happening to orangutans and their habitat, or to the other species that share the forest they live in, and our animals are a good way to introduce people to that and make them care about something that’s happening on the other side of the planet,” Snyder said.

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