This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.
On a well-trodden elephant path, where baboons roam and lions lurk, Kate Wilson arrives to unlock the wooden doors of Mulberry Mongoose. Her six-room workshop—replete with an outdoor courtyard where silver vervet monkeys swing through the treetops—houses the women-run jewelry enterprise she launched in 2013. Set in the Eastern Province of Zambia, on the outskirts of the Mfuwe settlement and less than a mile from the banks of the Luangwa River, the thatched-roof outpost is in an ideal position for its work. Just across the water is South Luangwa National Park, a 3,490-square-mile sanctuary for Zambia’s iconic wildlife.
As Wilson welcomes me in, I’m greeted in the central showroom by production manager Clera Njobvu. She guides me through the shop’s intricate jewelry pieces spread atop a series of wooden tables, and I hear laughter in an adjacent room as a group of women begin their day of creating handmade necklaces, earrings, and bracelets from locally sourced organic materials. The first piece to catch my eye is in Mulberry Mongoose’s African Bush Collection, a line comprised of statement necklaces made from guinea fowl feathers. Wilson tells me she sources them from a nearby farmer named Evans Chapala.
“His land is much different from commercialized farms you find in other countries,” says Wilson. “You won’t find acres of crops and combine harvesters to manage them.” Chapala’s acreage is about the size of a football field, I learn, which is just enough for him to grow cotton and rice and raise guinea fowl, the feathers of which he gathers for Wilson as the birds shed them throughout his land.
Complementing the regal black-and-white plumages are hand-carved wooden beads made from driftwood found in the Luangwa’s lush riverbeds, vintage Zambian coins collected in Mfuwe markets, and vegetable ivory seeds sourced from towering tagua palms. In an area where unemployment is high—which ultimately spawns more frequent occurrences of poaching—Njobvu tells me every piece of jewelry sold supports the livelihood of locals, stretching even further than the women of Mulberry Mongoose by funding conservation in greater South Luangwa. “What we do gives back to this environment where I have always lived,” says Njobvu. “I love that I’m able to protect it for the future.”
I follow Wilson into the jewelry production room, where she approves final pieces to sell. “I want everyone to benefit from Mulberry Mongoose,” she says. “Many women on staff had kids before they left school and were unable to finish, but their jobs allow them to give back to their environment. They’re hugely respected for this in the community and are empowered to be stewards of conservation.”
Of Mulberry Mongoose’s collections, the most celebrated and impactful combines lapis lazuli, turquoise, tigers eye, agate stones, and freshwater pearls with snare wire collected by South Luangwa’s anti-poaching patrols, an illicit practice responsible for killing and wounding thousands of Zambia’s wildlife each year. Even with its unyielding quality, Wilson was committed to forging beauty from brutality by producing beads from the almost unmalleable wire.
But creating the beads proved to be an arduous task. Once collected, Wilson tells me, the wire is cut using heavy-duty pliers and shaped flat with a metal hammer and an industrial anvil. Or it’s coiled into tight-wire beads. Each piece is then grinded to remove any sharp edges until it’s finally sanded by hand and glazed in metal protectant. “The process requires incredible strength,” says Wilson. “We course through nearly 5 steel drill bits per week!”
After first assigning a man to do the job, Wilson was adamant women were even more equipped for the task. After acquiring proper steel and woodworking tools, Wilson hired a Mfuwe carpenter to train the shop’s female artisans like Grace Mwanza. “We joke, laugh, and sing as a team,” Mwanza tells me as she shows me how to make snare beads. “Because of my job here, I was even able to build my own house.”
From cutting logs with a cross saw to forming wooden pieces with an axe and right-angled adze, Mwanza and her coworkers now saw, sand, and chisel wooden and metal snare beads to make the brand’s most popular pieces—worn by the likes of supermodel Doutzen Kroes, businessman Richard Branson, former president Bill Clinton, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
With each piece of Mulberry Mongoose jewelry sold, Wilson donates a portion of proceeds to the Zambian Carnivore Programme and Conservation South Luangwa, two organizations working diligently to protect the wildlife in the area. Marking the end of the Great Rift Valley, the Luangwa River runs through South Luangwa National Park and attracts a deluge of game increasingly targeted by poachers.
While all poaching methods are devastating, snare traps are especially gruesome. Snare wire is laid around watering holes to maximize the chances of catching an animal of the antelope species, which are consumed locally on a subsistence basis, as some residents still rely on bushmeat to feed their families. But often, giraffes, elephants, leopards, lions, or endangered wild dogs trigger the snare, causing the wire to act as a noose and lock around the animal’s limb or neck. The wire continues to tighten as the animal struggles to regain freedom, which eventually leads to a slow and painful death by strangulation—or worse—by dislocation or near decapitation. Without veterinary intervention, poachers will sell or eat the animal for its bushmeat.
At the Zambian Carnivore Programme, Thandiwe Mweetwa works as a senior ecologist and education manager. A National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee and a 2016 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, her position is paramount to the program’s efforts to radio track and protect predators from snares. “Being able to monitor lions, wild dogs, and other carnivores with tracking collars enables us to find and rescue any injured animals,” Mweetwa tells me. “It gives me great joy to see animals we treat fully recover."
Working in tandem with Mweetwa’s team are scouts funded by Conservation South Luangwa, the area's largest nonprofit anti-poaching and community conservation organization. “Snaring is the plague of Africa’s wildlife, silently wiping them out in so many places, often without anyone even noticing. We have witnessed the effects and horrors of snaring on so many animals for so many years, which is why we work so hard to combat this,” says Rachel McRobb, founder of Conservation South Luangwa. “By working with snare wire, the women of Mulberry Mongoose are highlighting an important issue and giving back so we can continue to send out anti-snare patrols.”
Since 2005, McRobb’s team has removed over 10,000 snares and intervened to save more than 160 elephants, 25 lions, and 20 hyenas. On average, it costs about $60 to fund a full-day anti-snaring patrol with 6 scouts, where up to 50 snares can be removed. To date, Mulberry Mongoose has raised around $75,000 to aid in these efforts.
Bridging the gap between conservation and community is the Time + Tide Foundation, a nonprofit just down the road from Mulberry Mongoose that creates grassroots education programs encouraging biodiversity-friendly economic activities. Working in tandem with Time + Tide’s collection of safari lodges on the Luangwa River and serving as an important link between commercial success and positive, year-over-year impact on local livelihoods, director Elizabeth Sadowski tells me residents near protected areas are the foundation’s most important stakeholders. “Through our education programs and outreach projects, we highlight the opportunities that can arise through conservation and eco-tourism,” says Sadowski. “We ask residents to partner with us in the journey to safeguard these unique habitats in ways that are locally sensible.”
Before I leave the shop, Wilson packs my purchases in a chitenge pouch, a material, she tells me, that’s as representative of Zambian culture as the jewelry itself. The vibrant textiles are used as swaths to carry children or formed into bright, patterned dresses, which can be seen throughout Mfuwe. When shoppers buy online, Wilson usually adds a note to the package before it's shipped internationally, describing the route the jewelry took to its buyer.
“On a typical day, a package will leave our shop for the Mfuwe airport, where the truck drives by a watering hole for hippopotamus and a natural basin where giraffes and elephants meet,” says Wilson. “It may take a bit longer to receive our jewelry, but I want to take people on the journey of why we do what we do—to conserve the species of this pristine wilderness we call home.”
National Geographic Society has supported multiple grantees in their work with the Zambian Carnivore Programme, including Thandiwe Mweetwa and Matt Smith Becker.