Kate Stephenson is a conservationist. She’s the Education Editor for National Geographic Kids and the youngest trustee of Born Free Foundation, an organisation campaigning fiercely for animal rights. She hosted an art exhibition in 2015 to raise funds for their European elephant sanctuary, and she’s volunteered at the Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa.
She’s captured this wealth of experience and knowledge on her blog, kateonconservation.com, which she updates when taking a break from podcasting. Gorilla Socks had the pleasure of interviewing Kate, to learn more about her work as a conservationist and animal rights activist.
What sparked your interest in conservation?
I loved animals, even as young child. I think from a combination of watching Disney's The Lion King over and over and reading lots of books and encyclopaedias about wildlife. The first time I realized that wildlife needed our help was when I was about 6 years old. My mum adopted a tiger for me through Born Free Foundation and I started reading about the threats that tigers faced in the wild. I'd say that's where my passion for conservation started.
Are there any individuals who have had the greatest impact on your values and beliefs on animal rights?
My first wildlife hero was Virginia McKenna -- her stirring speech in the film Born Free about Elsa the lioness being 'born free, so she should live free' resonated with me even as a kid. Later I would be obsessed with watching David Attenborough and Steve Irwin on television. As I began to understand more about the natural world as a teenager and in my early twenties it was Will Travers, Ian Redmond, Jane Goodall and the incredible wildlife artist Pollyanna Pickering who most captured my imagination and cemented my ethics.
Congratulations on becoming the youngest Trustee of Born Free Foundation! Tell us more about what your work with the organisation.
Thanks. I've been a trustee for just over a year now, and it's still very much a learning curve for me. Of course, the Board have a hand in making or approving many of the decisions when it comes to financial and legal issues, but we've also been busy shaping the charity's 5-year plan and devising the organisation’s main priorities. I've supported Born Free for many years, and it's a great reassurance to see how things work behind the scenes. I'm proud to be involved with such a genuine, passionate and dedicated organisation, whom I know for a fact carry out all they do with the utmost integrity; from rescuing individual animals, to lobbying governments and tackling some of the biggest global issues such as wildlife trade and working on the ground to mediate in cases of human-wildlife conflict.
We’d love to hear about the animal rights event that you’ve been most proud to have attended.
I've been to numerous marches and demonstrations over the last 10 years, and many inspiring and informative events. It's very hard to choose which have meant the most to me. This year has been an important one with the release of the People's Manifesto in the summer; a call to action for MPs about how the British public would like to see our wildlife better protected and current legislation better enforced. It went hand-in-hand with the People's Walk for Wildlife, which was one of the biggest and most inspiring marches I've been on. Instead of chanting slogans, we walked through the streets of London to the sound of birdsong, played out from thousands of mobile phones. It was incredibly moving.
Also this year, I had the honour of attending the Illegal Wildlife Trade conference, which was one of the most high profile conferences I've ever attended. It was a fascinating insight into the visions of those in power -- but I'm sad to say not everything that was discussed there seems to have stuck!
You believe in the power of education to alter our views on animal rights. What have you been involved in to increase education levels?
My blog, kateonconservation.com, is my unrestricted place to share my thoughts and learning. I cover everything on there from canned lion hunting to the UK badger cull, Taiji Cove dolphin slaughter to the illegal wildlife trade, the dog meat industry, fox hunting and the environmental impact of micro-plastics.
In terms of educating children, I have my work at Nat Geo Kids magazine, where I work as Education Editor, creating school resources and supporting brilliant education initiatives such as Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots programme. In the summer, I gave an assembly about British wildlife at a primary school in Norfolk, and I was fortunate enough to speak on a young conservationists panel at the prestigious Birdfair event at Rutland Water.
Previously, I've given assemblies for Racing Extinction and worked on their educational resources when I was an employee of Discovery Education and I've also spent some time volunteering for educational VR app vEcotourism.
On that note, do you have any success stories from promoting animal rights?
Working for a children's magazine like National Geographic Kids, you hope that with it going into so many schools and young people's bedrooms throughout the country, it's having an impact on many children and (hopefully!) their families too. I wrote a story earlier in the year about an experience helping Mote Marine Lab, based in Florida, who monitor and care for sea turtle nests. It ended up being a cover story of the magazine in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – and was even translated into Afrikaans. That felt like it was having a huge impact!
But on a more personal level, my niece recently gave me a drawing of an elephant and had written on it why she loves elephants. That meant so much to me.
And what was it like to volunteer at the Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa?
Life-changing. I volunteered there with Worldwide Experience, via Born Free Foundation -- because their big cat sanctuaries are located within the boundaries of the reserve. Seeing animals in this environment, living as wild a life as possible, really made me realise that the conditions we see in zoos and petting farms across the globe are far less than satisfactory. Once you've seen herds of elephants roaming for miles a day, lion prides lazing in the sun with full bellies after an afternoon of hunting and leopards hidden among the branches of trees, it's very hard to accept relatively small enclosures with basic 'enrichment'.
The work at the reserve wasn't always about watching wonderful wildlife though. It would involve management of the area – darting and moving animals, removing invasive plant species, erosion control, removing snares, repairing fences – it was really about understanding what this style of conservation involves. Shamwari is a great example of re-wilding an area and creating an ecosystem in a previously desolate landscape.
If you had one main goal as a conservationist, what would that be?
To show the benefits of moving away from animal agriculture for the sake of the environment and to be involved in re-wilding parts of the UK (and beyond!). I know it seems an unlikely task to engage the wider public in changing their consumer habits, but I think with the right education and empowerment of sourcing sustainable alternatives; it could be possible. I would love to take part in a project that helps restore areas of land to see native species of flora and fauna flourish once more.
I say the UK specifically because it’s my locality, but likewise it would be great to work on something similar where land once used for palm oil is restored as orangutan territory, for example, or a sustainable, more eco-friendly alternative is found for cobalt used in mobile phones, etc., and mined land can be restored as protected gorilla territory.
Has it been a difficult journey, committing yourself to conservationism?
I think it's something which develops and grows the more you learn and understand. Initially it was about campaigning and fundraising, but it's impossible to truly care about wildlife and the environment and not change your lifestyle too -- from giving up meat and dairy to using eco-friendly cleaning products, and choosing reusable nappies for my daughter, to eliminating single-use plastic in as many places as possible around the house. Even wearing gorilla-friendly bamboo socks! The most difficult part of the journey has been evaluating and re-evaluating my own impact on the planet and admitting what I've been doing is just not good enough! So you're constantly looking for the next way you can help wildlife in your daily life.
Tell us about the exciting conservation projects you’re involved in right now
Well, I'm busy with Nat Geo Kids magazine at the moment -- that's where I work 9-5, and there are always exciting projects and big things in the planning there.
In my spare time I keep my blog, kateonconservation.com and I have a number of interviews and collaborations lined up for that in the new year. I'm also a judge at the UK Blog Awards 2019, for the Nature and Wildlife category. The awards are taking place in early April and I'm really excited to see all the incredible bloggers and the amazing work that's out there.
I'm also excited to be getting involved with a brilliant podcast called Wild Voices Project – my first foray into the podcasting world, and I'm doing a little bit here and there as a 'roving reporter' at the moment; highlighting the work of some of my conservation peers and heroes.
Finally, we can see you were able to organise your own art exhibition a few years ago, to raise funds for Born Free Foundation’s elephant sanctuary in Europe. What inspired you to do this, and was it successful? What did the exhibition involve?
I'd love to hold another event like that soon! It was so much fun and I think it helped to raise awareness of the challenges that elephants face when kept in captivity; it has real psychology and emotional impacts on these incredibly intelligent and sentient beings. The event was a wildlife and photography exhibition of my work – pencil drawing being a much-loved hobby of mine – and also exhibiting some work of a few selected artists from my hometown.
It was held in a brilliant local community centre called the Charles Burrell Centre and sponsored by a business called Zebra TM, who helped put on brilliant opening night with free drinks and an art competition for local schoolchildren -- which went down a treat! There was also a prize raffle with donations from local businesses and a tombola for children, as well as live music from my husband Nick Stephenson, who's a professional musician. I screened the short documentary Elephant in the Room, which helped bring home the purpose of it all, and there was lots of information available about the plight of elephants and why the planned new sanctuary is so important for Europe's captive elephants in crisis.
We raised a few hundred pounds, but the most important thing was that people came up to me at the end of the event and asked, "What more can I do to get involved?".
Keep in touch with Kate all over the internet:
@KateConsrvation on Twitter;
kateconservation on Instagram;
Wild Voices Project, her new podcast.
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