OKC Zoo’s 21-year-old Sumatran orangutan, Elok, assisted by digital technology and his caretakers, creates non-fungible tokens marking a historic and energy saving move in the world of cryptocurrency world.   

To raise awareness and funds for the conservation of wild orangutans and their habitat, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Oklahoma Zoological Society have partnered with designers to devise a unique animal enrichment enabling the Zoo’s male Sumatran orangutan, Elok, 21, to create digital artwork available for purchase as a non-fungible token (NFT) via an international auction.  To mark this achievement by Ethereum (also referred to as Ether or ETH), the Zoo is selling a pair of NFTs created by the orangutan on Monday, September 19. All proceeds from sales of Elok’s art will be used to conserve orangutans and other endangered species in the wild.

NFTs are digital assets that signify unique, virtual collectibles, such as art, that cannot be copied or replaced. Since their emergence in 2014 and rapid growth in popularity, the interest in the NFT market has grown exponentially. With the value of each NFT tied closely to the distinctiveness of the art and admiration among collectors, the Oklahoma City Zoo is hopeful that these first digital NFTs created by an animal will be received with global excitement.

Since the digital currency Ethereum, began in 2015, it has, like bitcoin, been mined through a proof-of-work model. This involves complex math equations that thousands of computer processors race to solve, requiring significant amounts of energy. The large amount of energy used to power the blockchain has been a significant problem for the crypto industry for both its cost and the negative perception of its impact on the climate crisis. The recent upgrade to the new Ethereum blockchain which began rolling out on Wednesday, September 14, will not make Ethereum faster or less expensive, but it will reduce the energy used by Ethereum to verify transactions by more than 99%.

The two works titled Elok #5 PRE-MERGE and Elok #11 POST-MERGE – part of The Elok Collection, will be for sale at a very low set price of 0.1 Ether through online NFT auction site OpenSea.io. The low price is intended to appeal to both established collectors and first-time buyers interested in affordably joining The Elok community and contributing to conservation. Elok #5 PRE-MERGE, is described by Becky Scheel of Megafauna Studios as “a cosmos of blue comets in a dark evening sky” and Elok #11 POST-MERGE as “effervescent and whimsical, bright and sweeping colors reach towards a more positive future.” Further, owners of all works from The Elok Collection will receive future airdrops and perks.

This novel creative endeavor is the result of the design team at Megafauna Studios, Becky Scheel and Mathieu Kuhne, reaching out to the OKC Zoo’s Director of Conservation Science, Dr. Rebecca Snyder, to propose a new form of digital animal enrichment. Animal enrichment is the term used to describe any stimuli given to animals in human care that stimulates their senses and activates natural behaviors as well as behavioral diversity. The Oklahoma City Zoo provides all of the animals in its care with a variety of enrichment, including access to paint and canvas – often with a human caretaker assisting. The resulting work is sold to OKC Zoo visitors through the Art Gone Wild Program, with proceeds supporting the Zoo’s conservation programs. However, instead of using traditional paint and canvas, Scheel and Kuhne were interested to see how OKC Zoo’s Sumatran orangutan, Elok, would engage with a 2-foot digital brush provided to him and a 3x4-foot screen just outside his indoor habitat. When Elok moved the digital brush, a motion detecting device made from a modified Xbox captured the brush’s movement and projected the design onto the digital screen. Both the finished creative product and the act of creation were recorded. After a few tries, each rewarded by edible treats including animal crackers and prunes, Elok quickly became adept with the digital wand and created a series of stunning digital artworks.

“Enrichment provides engaging ways for animals to keep their minds and bodies active,” said Scheel. “Orangutans are highly intelligent, and by utilizing digital applications, you can provide a form of enrichment that’s individualized. Each of Elok’s creations from the movement and balance to the composition is entirely him. He voluntarily participated in these enrichment sessions, receiving his favorite snacks from his caretakers making it a rewarding experience, eliciting positive behavior from Elok.” Kuhne added, “This project is a dream for us, we are combining NFTs with animal enrichment, conservation and charity! Collections like these can make NFTs more than just collectibles, they create a community for good. This is the future we want to see and be a part of."

                “All three species of orangutans—Sumatran, Bornean and Tapanuli—are critically endangered, and thus conservation fundraising efforts like this NFT sale are crucial,” said Dr. Snyder. “Endangered means there is still time to help protect and raise awareness for these beloved species and their habitats, and our hope is these original NFTs created by an animal in human care and used to help wild animals has a global impact for inspiring conservation action.” 

Elok’s artwork is available on the world’s largest NFT market place, OpenSea.io. Net proceeds from the sale will be collected by Oklahoma Zoological Society, the non-profit organization that supports the Oklahoma City Zoo. The OKC Zoo will then allocate the funds to non-profit science-based conservation organizations working to protect wild orangutans and other endangered species. For more information about this digital venture, the Zoo has created a webpage www.okczoo.org/nft featuring photos, videos and answers to frequently asked questions.

In addition to caring for Elok, the OKC Zoo is also home to a female Sumatran orangutan, Negara, 28.

Sumatran orangutans are listed as critically endangered in the wild. Globally, 60 percent of primate species are now threatened with extinction and 75 percent have declining populations. This condition exists because of extensive habitat loss, increased bushmeat hunting, and illegal trade. The OKC Zoo is playing an increasingly critical role in saving wildlife, including orangutans. In 2016 and 2017, the Zoo partnered with Rainforest Trust to protect forest in Sumatra and Borneo, which provides habitat for orangutans and many other endangered species.

The Zoo will continue to share updates on Elok and the NFT sales on its social channels—FacebookTwitterInstagram and TikTok.

Located at the crossroads of I-44 and I-35, the OKC Zoo is a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Alliance of Museums, Oklahoma City’s Adventure District and an Adventure Road partner. Regular admission is $12 for adults and $9 for children ages 3-11 and seniors ages 65 and over. Children two and under are admitted free. Stay connected with the Zoo on FacebookTwitterInstagramLinktree and TikTok, and by visiting our blog stories. To learn more about Zoo happenings, call (405) 424-3344 or visit okczoo.org