An interview with lucy stewart 

Volunteering with Lions : Behind the Scenes

Editor's Note: What is your ultimate travel experience? For many young millennials, the trip of a lifetime involves jetting off to Africa and cuddling up with lions under the guise of voluntourism. But the truth behind Africa's cruelly lucrative industry known as "cub petting," one pushed by many a volunteer outlet, ends up shocking tourists and volunteers into seeing their trip in a whole new light. The practice, which has exploited captive-bred lions for decades, involves having travellers and volunteers pay to literally "raise," pet and have their photos taken with infantile lion cubs. These cubs are exploited for petting, walking and - later, when they are too mature and dangerous for human interaction - canned hunting. And though this industry is incredibly lucrative for breeders, facilities and governments in Africa, more tourists are waking up to the dangers of direct-interactions with lions and the threats these activities pose to the species itself. Volunteers like Lucy are utilizing their own experience with lion interactions to help educate fellow travellers and put an end to the captive breeding, abuse and mongering of Africa's most iconic animal. We are happy to present to our readers an interview with Lucy about her time spent volunteering with lions in South Africa. Read on for more, then join the fight to help save Africa's lions. 

What first interested you in volunteering with big cats?

Volunteering abroad was always something I had been keen to do – in order to travel and experience a completely different aspect of the world. I have always been a cat lover since a young age; lions and tigers had always been my favourite animals! Using my time and money to work towards the cause of conserving these animals appealed to me hugely. 

Tell us briefly about your time spent with lions in South Africa. 

My experience in South Africa was, overall, amazing. I loved every second of it and at the time believed it was the best thing I ever did. Even now looking back, I am saddened by the fact the experience was tainted by the truth. Experiencing that close contact and hands on experience with lions was a dream come true for me, but now I am more educated in the subject; I realize it is not a natural thing to occur, and should not be happening. I cannot say I regret my experience; I just wish it had been what I thought it was. Working in such close proximity to other African animals, such as gazelle and zebra, and seeing giraffe in the wild was something I will never forget, and I would love to go back and do it again; only this time, making sure it is for the right cause and only to do good.

During my time as a volunteer, there was absolutely no signs – to me at least – of any ulterior, darker motive; it all seemed to be just as I expected and a dream come true.

Was there a specific occasion which led you to become skeptical of your volunteer placement? 

An accumulation of comments and rumours led me to start researching canned hunting, and a comment from a fellow volunteer on Facebook confirmed my beliefs that the reserve we were at was part of this. During my time as a volunteer, there was absolutely no signs – to me at least – of any ulterior, darker motive; it all seemed to be just as I expected and a dream come true. 

Was the volunteer program you traveled with misleading about what your experience would involve?

The volunteer programme provided all the information needed about what would happen during the two week stay and what tasks volunteers would partake in, but no information was given in regards to why we were carrying out these tasks for the lions. The ‘Live with Lions’ experience came under the section of ‘animal conservation’ on the website – so this was misleading, but since the trip has been removed from the website, it leads me to believe perhaps the company did not know the true nature behind the reserve and what they were sending volunteers into. 

Do you feel other millennials are being easily fooled into believing interactions with big cats will save the species?

I agree with this strongly. Young people such as myself are naïve in this area, and with a thirst for adventure and new experiences, often book the trip with little research. Why shouldn’t we trust the companies sending us off to lion parks? A young cub is dangled in front of animal lovers, the cuteness and novelty of being able to interact with these animals takes over and is such a thrilling experience we believe the cleverly constructed cover stories which are then recited to us. 

What advice do you have for those looking to volunteer with big cats who may be unaware of the dangers involved?

Do your research! There are lots of places which offer safe volunteering – often with less hands on experience which may seem disappointing, but remember it is what is truly helping these animals. It saddens me to say that you must be skeptical, but it is the truth, and researching all the places you find is very important, so as not to waste your time, money, and most importantly, accidentally and unwillingly entering into such an obscene business as canned hunting. 

// All Photos throughout interview are Courtesy and Property of Lucy Stewart //

For more information on how you can help put an end to African Lion exploitation, visit Lion Aid and CACH

By Nicholas mccallum // Staff Writer

The Funky World of Fungus: A Look at Innovative Company Ecovative

With the distinct advantage of a large brain capable of analytical thought, the human race shot to the top of the food chain, essentially denying the constraints of nature by imposing rule, creating culture, and whose thirst for knowledge fuelled an astonishing propensity for innovation. But humankind's mastery over nature has come from our intense scrutiny of it, assimilating what we learn into our own lives, an area of study known as biomimetics.

Biomimicry has existed for some time, such as when Velcro was created in 1941, inspired by the way plant burrs stick to dog hair, or how a bat's ability to navigate via echo-location was paramount to the invention of radar and sonar technologies. Now, as technology seems to advance almost daily, biomimetics is being applied to anything from skin grafting to e-readers. However, nature beats us to the punch every time, and in some of the most unexpected ways.

Renowned mycological pioneer, Paul Stamets, has been researching fungi for over 40 years, and is a dedicated proponent of the ecological, biological and environmental benefits that the mushroom kingdom can provide for the planet. He has discovered various new species of mycelia, written six books on the subject, and is considered to be one of top innovators of ecological preservation and restoration. In March of 2008, Stamets delivered a TED Talk on 6 ways mushrooms can save the worldwhich has been viewed over 3.5 million times, wherein he explains how he had “first proposed, in the early 1990s, that mycelium is the Earth's natural internet.”

While the majority of people can readily identify a typical mushroom, be it in a grocery store, or growing somewhere out in the wilderness, those visible portions of vegetation are merely the fruiting body of a vast fungal net (ie. mycelium) that spreads for miles beneath the surface. These fibrous interconnections transfer nutrients as well as information throughout its nexus, engaging in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding ecosystem.

A recent article by Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, discussed similar findings from 2012, when Christian Körner and Tamir Klein were studying carbon dioxide depletion among spruce trees. As the scientists examined their data they revealed that, “trees of different species exchange huge amounts of carbon via an internet of fungi...that secretly connects their roots.” Mushrooms subsist by breaking down organic material through a release of acids and enzymes, thereby allowing them to absorb nutrients into the cell walls of the subsurface web of mycelium. This process of organic recycling makes fungi one of the most powerful and efficient composting and filtration systems in the world. So perhaps it's no surprise that, as humans move into an era dubbed by scientists as the 6th mass extinction, we have begun to apply mycological technology as a method of self-preservation.

Enter Ecovative: an award winning biomaterials company that grows sustainable products to dramatically reduce environmentally harmful waste. Aptly based out of Green Island, New York, Ecovative's objective is to “envision, develop, produce, and market Earth friendly materials, which, unlike conventional synthetics, can have a positive impact on our planet’s ecosystem.” The roots of this ecologically innovative company stems back a full decade, to 2006, when Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre were attending the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and began working together to design an insulation material made from agricultural waste and mycelium.

Upon graduating from RPI a year later, Bayer and McIntyre, at the behest of their professor, took their project one step further by aiming to create a company based around this new technology. Their concept for organic protective packaging won them $750,000 from the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge—the biggest international competition of its kind, focusing on businesses dedicated to fast-tracking the implementation of a low-carbon economy—and shortly after that, received a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Courtesy of Ecovativ

Courtesy of Ecovativ

Whether it is encasing television sets and computers, or protecting smaller miscellaneous items with those squeaky little popcorns, polystyrene, or Styrofoam, is the predominant material used in shipping packages today. However, the problem with Styrofoam is that it is non-biodegradable, taking some 500 years to decompose. And despite being rife with harmful pollutants, approximately 14 million tonnes of this synthetic material is produced annually worldwide, devastating the environment. Toxins seep into food and waterways, and continent-sized patches of plastic waste now churn throughout the oceans of Earth, negatively effecting human and wildlife alike.

But Ecovative may have just the solution.

The process begins by purchasing agricultural waste that is cleaned and introduced to Ecovative's patented strain of mycelium, which is then bagged, allowing the fungus to cultivate. Once the waste has been sufficiently coated, it is broken down into loose particles and put into a device where the mycelium can grow throughout each individual particle. After the food source has been completely devoured, the result is a solid structure of mycelium that is then dried to prevent the material from fruiting and developing spores, thereby creating a malleable material that can be custom designed for various applications.

Courtesy of Ecovative

What sets this product apart though, is its application after shipping. While Styrofoam is sometimes recycled, more often it is simply thrown in the garbage, or tossed out a car window, slowly releasing its pollutants wherever it happens to land. Ecovative's organic packaging, on the other hand, can quite literally be torn up and placed in the compost, or even one's garden where it will naturally break down upon exposure to microorganisms and moisture, contributing to the environment instead of damaging it.

Although human beings are responsible for the widespread degradation of our planet, we are also Earth's great imitators, using our ever-growing knowledge of nature to help us better adapt and maintain equilibrium with our surroundings. And while it may be easier to destroy than it is to create, the team at Ecovative has shown that innovation, combined with the will to better our circumstances can lead to a healthy, prosperous future. 

By Stephanie McLean Villano // Creator of My Kind Closet

Dead by Default: The Tragic Plight of Africa & Asia's Elephants

Elephants are among the most well loved creatures on planet Earth, and for good reason; their impressive size, adorable floppy ears, expressive eyes, and their unquestionable intelligence and strong familial bonds have endeared them to the hearts of people the world over.  

Unfortunately, elephants are the target of unsavoury individuals and industries that wish to profit from selling their body parts, especially ivory, or capturing them live to be sold for entertainment and tourism.

The plight of the African Elephant is well understood and chronicled, particularly with respect to both poaching and human-elephant conflicts that occur in villages located within elephant range.  NGO’s, non-profits, and various wildlife conservationists are outspoken about the impacts of ivory poaching and actively involved in efforts to stop it. Many a celebrity have voiced their support of the cause attracting more attention and doubtless interest from their fans. 

Much work has been done to help mitigate human-elephant conflicts utilizing community-based conflict methods focused on education, the training of wildlife managers, and the integration of low-cost deterrence methods to reduce elephant damage. The populations of elephants in Africa are well tracked and documented and there are constant efforts to improve policies and legislation intended to support elephant conservation.

While the fate of the African Elephant is still quite tenuous, the fact that their plight is being watched on the world stage is beneficial because the attention will always ensure people are drawn to the cause and that measures of accountability are in place to further their conservation.

The situation for their Asian counterparts is less well understood, as the actual population estimate varies and isn’t known for sure.  The problems facing the Asian elephant are fraught with complex problems that require more research and attention. 

Listed as stable by the IUCN as recently as 1965, the Asian elephant is now critically endangered, having experienced a 50% decline in population over only three generations and have disappeared completely from some areas where they were once widespread, like Java and West Asia.  Estimations of the total population of Asian elephants range from 40,000 – 50,000.  The accuracy is unclear because we don’t even really know where some of the populations are, or if they are still living within their range. 

Many might assume that poaching is a relatively minor threat to Asian elephants when compared to African elephants because most male Asian elephants and all females lack tusks; however, the poaching of elephants in South East Asia is a very serious threat to their declining and fragmented populations.  Elephants in this part of the world are at risk for a number of reasons, namely habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, but also because the wildlife tourism industry is strong.  

The poaching of elephants live, from the wild, ensures there is supply to meet the demand of eager tourists who wish to ride atop the back of an elephant on a trek through the jungle, or who bring their children to watch as elephants play soccer or paint pictures with their trunks.  Because of this, the trade of a healthy baby elephant is rather lucrative, so the incentive is well established. 

Courtesy of National Geographic

Courtesy of National Geographic

Lack of regulation and accountability within South East Asian governments, most notably in Thailand, enables the poaching of elephants and their illegal trade within the country and across the Myanmar(Burma)-Thai border 

To further complicate the issue in Thailand, for both captive elephants and the future conservation of wild elephants, is a frustrating legal technicality that does not afford the legal protection one might expect for an endangered species.  According to the Draught Animal Act of 1939, captive elephants are essentially defined as working animals, or livestock, along with cows, horses, and donkeys. The Act serves only to define responsibilities of caretaker ownership; there are no provisions that outline or impose obligations of welfare or that prohibit cruelty or over work.  Conversely, livestock departments within Thailand consider the elephants wild animals and fail to enact a system of management.  This glaring lack of accountability between livestock departments and wildlife agencies further threatens the welfare of captive elephants, and puts the wild population at greater risk. 

Elephants have been used for work for hundreds of years – their historic relationship to the land and people is woven into the cultural fabric of Thailand. Traditionally used for transportation to remote areas and for logging, thousands elephants within the industry suddenly found themselves out of work after the logging ban in 1989.  While some mahouts continued to participate in illegal logging, others eventually branched out and began using their elephants for entertainment, joining various tourist camps, which are now ubiquitous throughout the country and other areas of South East Asia.

Courtesy of World Animal Protection

Courtesy of World Animal Protection

A 2010 study conducted titled “Wildlife On A Tightrope,” found that, of the 1644 elephants assessed across 117 venues, a disturbing 60% demonstrated psychological problems including, but not limited to, pacing and weaving.  Furthermore, 34% of the elephants were kept separate from one another with no social interaction, 86% were kept on short chains except when used in tourist activities, 25% were kept on concrete ground, and only 10.2% reported direct access to veterinary care.   It is widely held that the welfare of any wild animal in captivity will be dictated by how well husbandry conditions resemble their natural environment, and also their ability to meet the Five Freedoms, but the lack required husbandry regulations and guidelines for elephants, the decline of mahout culture, and limited animal welfare legislation effectively permits their mismanagement. While a manual geared toward the average mahout, outlining best practices for the care of captive elephants, was created in 2005, their neglect and welfare is clearly still of grave concern. 

It’s important that more attention is paid, on a global scale, to the plight of the Asian elephant.  Further attention could encourage more serious efforts to help mitigate some problems addressed above.  Important solutions would include the implementation of legislation and regulation that would serve to provide protections to captive elephants, in addition to enforcing harsher punishments to poachers in hopes of deterring poaching and illegal trading.   Conserving habitat for wild animals and establishing wildlife corridors to help them safely travel through their habitat and away from communities would assist with habitat fragmentation as well as reduce human-elephant conflicts and make them less vulnerable to poaching.

It’s also vital to educate tourists about the plight of the Asian elephant to deter them from patronizing tourism operations that use wild animals as entertainment; instead, tourists should consider visiting reputable sanctuaries who allow captive elephants to live as naturally as possible without making them work.  These sanctuaries also provide work for mahouts who may otherwise struggle finding employment, or who were relegated to working with companies with low animal welfare standards.  Because there are so many elephants in captivity the issue is more complex than simply putting these companies out of business; we must collectively consider solutions that are good for both people and elephants, all while considering the future conservation and protection of their species. 

While the population of Asian elephants, overall, is on the decline, there is one positive glimmer of hope in the Western Ghats region of India where the population appears to be increasing as a result of improved conservation efforts.  This goes to show that appropriate measures can yield positive results, even in struggling populations.  It is with hope that increased awareness about the problems facing this fragile species, along with the continued efforts of organizations already working in Thailand and around Asia and the successes of efforts like those in India, will incite and inspire necessary change.

// Visit My Kind Closet to see more from Stephanie on animal friendly fashion, lifestyle & travel //