A New Hope

Humanity is capable of having a powerful impact on the world as a whole, and at times such influence has proven to be a dastardly effect. Researchers consistently agree that extinction trends are certainly no exception to the rule, as the scientific journal Science reports that the current rate of extinction is about 1000 times higher due to human impact. A major presence behind such numbers is the deadly practice of poaching, which remains a lucrative business well into the 21st century.

Nonetheless, humanity also has the power to create a positive influence as well. Catching Hope, which started as a small project at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin in 2014 is one of those organizations seeking to make a difference in the world. The organization has the unique task of re-purposing old poaching snares found in the Annamite Mountains by crafting them into jewelry, dreamcatchers, or even keychains. The main goal? Save the saola (pronounced: sow-LAH) — an animal as rare as the quest itself.

Race Against Extinction talked with Erin Flynn, the program coordinator and animal extraordinaire.

What exactly is Catching Hope?

Catching Hope is a really exciting and unique grassroots movement. We get poaching snares, which are collected by the local people of Laos and Vietnam, and we create crafts from them, mainly keychains, dreamcatchers, and ornaments. Once we sell them, all of the profit goes back to the IUCN Saola Working Group to train and employ more local people to collect poaching snares. It’s this nice, feel-good story with people helping people and, in turn, that’s helping the wildlife.

Annamite Mountain Range (https://www.savethesaola.org/)

The Annamite Mountains is one of the biological hotspots on the planet and it’s full of endangered species. Our flagship species is the saola – which the working group has worked very hard with the local people to build some national recognition and pride in. Saola was discovered in 1992, when it was recognized by a scientist doing some research in the area who saw some horns on a wall that he didn’t recognize. The local people refer to it as the “polite animal,” so they acknowledge it, but it’s not part of their lore. They’re critically endangered due to illegal poaching, and there’s not enough of them to have value on the black market, so when they are caught they’re just discarded. Catching Hope supports the local people to go out into the forest and collect those poaching snares. We’re not only helping the people, the forest, and all the wildlife, we are also giving people alternatives to doing business with poachers.

What are the origins behind the program?

Bill Robichaud came out and presented to the zoo staff at Henry Vilas Zoo and we were all really interested in this animal that we had never heard of. It looks like an antelope, but it’s related to cattle and nobody outside of Laos or Vietnam had seen a live one in the wild. Bill then tells us they have hundreds of poaching snares that they’re pulling and it was just a shame they didn’t have anything to do with them. I asked him to come out and talk to our docent group and we got them sold on the idea. Eventually, we figured out how to make something that people would use, something we could make accessible to everybody. Every single product we create has the story on it, about removing poaching snares from the wild and helping the local people and everything we make has a saola on it. Bill and I presented this to several other zoos at the Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Conference in 2015 and they wanted to partner with us because they thought it was such a cool story.

What inspired you to first get involved?

Saola Illustration (https://www.savethesaola.org/)

I didn’t have a solution to the problem, but I knew that it was somewhere out there and with enough eyes on it we could do something, because the story was just too good. I was insanely proud of us for figuring this out, so we unveiled it to the public on Earth Day of 2014. We had invested a small amount of money and we stood out there in the middle of the zoo and put out our table covered with dreamcatchers and we sold $1,200 of product in one day.  I like to quote The Lorax here, “unless someone cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better, it’s not.”

We’ve breached a lot of barriers because zoos want our product thanks to the story. It’s just a feel-good storyline. Omaha actually sells them for free, so we give them all of the product and they sell it and donate all the profit back to us. This is a great relationship and it’s a great program. We’ve been so fortunate to partner with people and grow it like we have. The best-case scenario is that we can’t do this anymore because there’s no more snares, but we’re proud, and we’re dedicated. We don’t have advertising, we just have an Earth Day fun book and the Wisconsin State Journal and The Isthmus articles that have been about it – there’s no marketing budget. Bill often refers to Henry Vilas as “the mouse that roars,” and we take pride in that.

Any big plans for the future?

We expanded the program locally this year. The native Hmong women are renowned for their textile work, their fabric work, so we’ve also commissioned several orders of hand-embroidered fabric. They designed a saola for Catching Hope, and the commission for those orders helps them specifically support their families. This program began in 2014 and as of last year, I believe it has raised over $7,200 so far, which is the annual salary over four years for the people in Vietnam and Laos. There are about 10 of us who actively work on the program, and there’s a whole bunch of community groups who come through and have crafted with us or purchased from us. People can place orders online and we will ship them out, so we now sell at different zoos, including Henry Vilas in Madison, Henry Doorly in Omaha, the Atlanta Zoo, and Zoo Boise. This year we’ve also expanded internationally to Zoo Wroclaw in Poland. It really allows anybody to be a global citizen, and help conservation efforts across the world.

What are the ways people can get involved?

The main ways are crafting with us, helping share the story and build awareness and, of course, purchasing product if they’re interested. We got a grant and we’re working on a small outreach like children’s books, but that’s still getting underway.

At this point crafting is something people can do in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s just been such a strong relationship between Henry Vilas Zoo and the IUCN Working Group and just having Bill’s support has been amazing.

How important are grassroots efforts like these?

I think they’re critical because it’s important to empower people. My mom actually came up with the name Catching Hope and that message of “hope” is huge, because without hope everybody shuts down. We need that story, we need to empower people to want to do something. Not everybody can fly to Africa to fight the poachers, but people can turn off the lights when they’re not in the room. The power of people acting together is immeasurable, but we’ve got to take action and make decisions or nothing changes. It’s important to give people hope and drive. It goes back to The Lorax, we can make the world a better place, but we just have to hope and we just have to care. Regardless of whatever else is going on, I feel like we’ve made a difference.

In January of 2015, we made more with all the help from school groups and community groups, – we had church groups, business groups coming in – we made more in one month with all that help than we could have on our own in the nine months beforehand. The fact we were able to incorporate it into our summer classes allowed kids to be active owners in global conservation because they went home knowing they made a difference.

Erin Flynn has been Catching Hope’s Program Coordinator since 2014 and aims to expand the program’s presence to the ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she currently serves as the Mammal Curator.

Head to SaveTheSaola.org to learn more about the Saola Working Group!


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