Women in History: Conservation Leaders
March is Women in History month and the National Wildlife Federation is celebrating by honoring five women who have made invaluable contributions to conservation in the United States and across the globe. Some of the wildlife heroes on this list are still hard at work while others have passed on and left us with the knowledge and inspiration to continue their great work. We thank them for their contributions to wildlife conservation and for the countless leaders they have inspired to continue their conservation legacy.
Wangari Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. She founded the Green Belt Movement and was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. While serving on the National Council of Women of Kenya, Professor Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting, where rural Kenyan women facing the impacts of environmental degradation would work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work. This idea ultimately turned into the Green Belt Movement to reduce poverty and foster environmental conservation. Professor Maathai was internationally acknowledged for her struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation, and served on the board of many organizations. In recognition of her deep commitment to the environment, the United Nations Secretary-General named Professor Maathai a Messenger of Peace in December 2009, with a focus on the environment and climate change. Click here for a list of awards and achievements.
Margie Richard is a great example of the power of persistence. Richard’s conservation work began after becoming aware of the harmful pollutants her community was being exposed to from living next to a Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana. After years of battling with the oil giant, her clever advocacy work (including live-streaming videos of the refinery spewing toxins into the air) eventually led to Shell Chemical agreeing to reduce its toxic emissions by 30 percent, contribute $5 million to a community development fund, and voluntarily finance the relocation of affected residents. Often human and wildlife problems are one in the same and this was seen as a huge victory not just for the humans in her community, but for wildlife in the area, as well. Richard is the first African-American to win the esteemed Goldman Environmental Prize.
Kenyan-born Daphne Sheldrick is known for her rescue and rehabilitation work of many African species, most notably elephants. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which she founded after her husband’s death, has allowed Sheldrick to save hundreds of elephants that would surely have perished without her efforts. Sheldrick was named one of 35 people worldwide who have made a difference in animal husbandry and wildlife conservation by the Smithsonian Magazine. In 2006 Queen Elizabeth II presented Sheldrick with the first Knighthood to be awarded in Kenya since the country received Independence in 1963.
Human fashion trends have had a serious impact on wildlife on many occasions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of North American birds were killed for their feathers. During this time feathers were even more valuable than gold. Migratory and shore birds were more likely to be targeted than others and, along the Atlantic coast, entire bird populations were decimated. Decades before women had the right to vote, Hemenway succeeded in creating a movement in Boston to boycott feathered hats. After working with scientists and businessmen in the area, she established the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Word spread as far as England, and as a result, Queen Victoria announced she would no longer wear feathers. Hemenway eventually helped establish a national network of the societies. Two pieces of national legislation were eventually passed: the Federal Bird Reservation, which eventually grew into the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the Weeks-McLean bill in 1913, which halted the plume trade.
Rachel Carson is one of the most famous environmentalists of all time. She is considered by many to have initiated the modern environmental movement, and her book, Silent Spring, had a profound effect on American views of the human impact on nature. Silent Spring was published in the 1960s when pesticide use, including DDT, was at an all-time high. As we now know, DDT accumulates in the environment and can have lasting effects on wildlife. The most prolific example is the weakening of egg shells which caused bird populations like that of the bald eagle to plummet. Carson’s words of warning and her strong advocacy work helped lead to the chemical eventually being banned in the United States. Carson’s leadership and powerful voice made people question the relationship between humans and nature and changed the course of conservation as we know it.