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5 Women Environmental Leaders You Should Know

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5 Women Environmental Leaders You Should Know
Paula Kahumbu attends the TDI Awards during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studios on April 25, 2017 in New York City. Rob Kim / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Women have long been at the forefront of the effort to protect the earth and its creatures. Some of them, like Greta Thunberg and Jane Goodall, are household names.


Others, like around 55 percent of the people who hit the streets for 2014's People's Climate March, are anonymous (s)heroes. In between these extremes are many women who have made a significant individual difference as scientists, inventors or activists and who deserve more recognition for their inspiring efforts.

Here are five women using their unique talents to protect the planet that we at EcoWatch think you should know about.

1. Miranda Wang, Inventor and Entrepreneur, Canada and U.S.

Only nine percent of the world's plastic is actually recycled. The rest is landfilled, burned or discarded into the environment, where it risks joining the eight million metric tons that pollute the world's oceans every year. But Miranda Wang is working to change that.

Together with her high school friend Jeanny Yao, Wang developed a method of using chemicals to break down unrecyclable polyethylene film plastics — such as the infamous plastic bag — into reusable compounds, The Mercury News explained. In 2015, the pair co-founded the company BioCellection when they were just 21 to put their invention into practice.

Wang and Yao first met in their Vancouver, B.C. high school's recycling club, where they visited waste plants.

"[W]hen I visited my first waste plant, the scale of the problem hit me," Wang told UN Environment. "All that waste."

She is now tackling the problem full time as CEO of BioCellection, which is based in Menlo Park, California. She is working on a pilot program with the city of San Jose and its waste handler GreenWaste to integrate her and Yao's innovation into its preexisting system.

"The long-term goal is to be able to recycle all of the city of San Jose's — and other cities' — polyethylene plastic," Wang told The Mercury News.

2. Dr. Paula Kahumbu, Conservationist, Kenya

Dr. Paula Kahumbu, who has been called the "life force" behind Kenya's conservation movement, has been working to protect elephants since she was in her early 20s. She and a group of friends measured every piece in Kenya's ivory stockpile to create an ivory "bonfire" in 1989, The Independent reported.

Since then, she has gone on to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton in ecology and evolutionary biology, to serve as the CEO of Kenyan conservation nonprofit WildlifeDirect, and to launch the successful Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign with Kenyan first lady Margaret Kenyatta in 2014.

"From spending so much time with [elephants], I know they are not just another animal," she told The Independent. "They are beings with personalities; with families; with feelings. It is such a horrendous injustice to allow them to be slaughtered."

Hands Off Our Elephants works to tackle the poaching crisis in Kenya by enacting new laws and making sure they are enforced, working directly with communities to develop conservation strategies that benefit humans and wildlife and building public support in Kenya for elephant conservation. Since it was launched, elephant poaching in the country has decreased by 80 percent and rhino poaching by 90 percent. One of Kahumbu's key insights has been the importance of engaging Africans, and particularly African women, in protecting their continent's unique animals.

"It can be hard for Africans, and especially African women, to be heard in this male-dominated world of Western scientists and academics," she told The Independent. "Maasai women, who have been studying elephants for 20 to 40 years each; should have Ph.D.s [by now], but they don't. There has been a real failure to develop the capacity of the people who are instrumental on the ground."

3. Artemisa Xakriabá, Indigenous Activist, Brazil

The election of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was a blow to climate action and indigenous rights. So far, he has overseen historic wildfires in the Amazon rainforest and pushed to open indigenous forest reserves to the mining and fossil fuel industries. But indigenous women are fighting back.

Among them is 19-year-old Artemisa Xakriabá, a member of Brazil's Xakriabá tribe. In August, she participated in the first Indigenous Women's March in Brasilia to protest Bolsonaro's anti-environment and anti-indigenous policies, HuffPost reported. She was then chosen by a coalition of South American and East Asian indigenous youth groups to represent their cause at youth climate strikes in New York and Washington, DC last September.

"We, the indigenous peoples, are the children of nature, so we fight for our Mother Earth, because the fight for Mother Earth is the mother of all other fights," she said in New York, as Democracy Now reported. "We are fighting for your lives. We are fighting for our lives."

Xakriabá's activism predates Bolsonaro, however. When she was only seven, she helped her classmates reforest 15 riverside areas near their traditional territory in Minas Gerais in southeast Brazil, according to HuffPost.

In New York, she spoke of the common struggle of all women to protect the earth.

"I am also here as a young woman," she said, as Democracy Now reported, "because there's no difference between an indigenous young female activist like myself and a young indigenous female activist like Greta. Our future is connected by the same threads of the climate crisis."

4. Dr. Maria Caffrey, Scientist and Whistleblower, U.S.

Dr. Maria Caffrey is another woman who stood up to a climate denying administration.

In 2012, the National Park Service (NPS) funded a project she had designed to estimate future sea levels and storm surges at 118 coastal national parks based on different levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as Caffrey wrote for The Guardian. She completed the first draft in the summer of 2016, but then President Donald Trump took office, and the report was delayed. Finally, a colleague told her that all mentions of climate change had been edited out of her report. Senior officials wanted her to approve the changes, and, if she refused, threatened to release the report without climate references, to delete her name or not to publish it at all.

"Each option would have been devastating to my career and for scientific integrity. I stood firm," she wrote. "And I prevailed."

The report was published, but Caffrey paid for her persistence. She received pay cuts and demotions and then, in February 2019, NPS refused to renew her funding, leading Caffrey to file a whistleblower complaint against the administration.

Caffrey also sued the administration and testified before Congress in an attempt to raise awareness about the silencing of scientists.

"Money was never really the point of the lawsuit," Caffrey told Colorado Matters. "The point of the lawsuit is to get on the record and show what the Trump administration is doing to scientists and that that's not OK. And so I think it's important that we stand up and we fight back."

5. Nirupabai, Activist, India

In India, the expansion of coal doesn't just hurt the global climate. Government-owned Coal India and its subsidiaries have bypassed local and international law in evicting people from their homes in order to expand mines in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, according to a 2016 Amnesty International report publicized by The Guardian. These evictions particularly target indigenous Adivasi communities, including a woman named Nirupabai whose home was bulldozed in 2014.

"I cried, I screamed, trying to save it," she told The Guardian of the eviction. "All my things, my son's school books, a year's worth of rice, everything was scattered, everything in ruins."

But Nirupabai has gone on to fight the coal company with every means at her disposal, Elle reported. She has picketed company offices, spoken at environmental hearings and she spoke in The Cost of Coal, India's first VR film to be acquired by the UN. What she wants is for Coal India to stop expanding until people like her are compensated for the land they have lost.

"You tell me what will grow on this poor land? Coal is the heart of the earth, but they remove it and say we are the sarkar. What is it that you have in your pocket that you didn't take from our land?" Nirupabai said, according to Elle.

Nirupabai has won one important victory. Coal India usually does not let women who have been displaced by its activities work in the mines because it deems the work unsafe. But a court order filed by another woman, Ratthobai Rathia, has given her the right to work for the land she has lost. Nirupabai isn't done fighting, however.

"I will fight for every last inch," she told Elle.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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