Vanam Foundation: Improving Education and Conservation outside Bandipur National Park

About 230 km (143 miles) away from Bangalore lies the Bandipur National Park in the district of Chamarajnagar. Tucked around the stunning Western Ghat Mountains in Karnataka, Bandipur National Park is regarded as one of the most beautiful parks in India and is home to many types of wildlife including tigers, elephants and gaurs (a type of bull) as well as the predominantly indigenous communities that surround the park. Together with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and Nagarhole National Park in the North, it creates the India’s largest biosphere reserve popularly known as the ‘Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve’ and is an important part of India’s efforts towards eco-conservation.

Bandipur National Park was founded in 1974 under the Indian Government in efforts to conserve the tigers and wildlife community, however, in the process of establishing the park the tribal populations who has lived in the forests of the reserve for centuries were moved off of their land and into the villages and hamlets that surround the park. They had lost access to their traditional way of life as forest dwellers and were moved into subsistence farming on dry plots of land.

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Morning at a water body inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo credit: Nithila Baskaran)

Conservation/Environment Gifts that Give Back Global Issues Humanitarian SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls

Lokal Travel: Connecting conscious travelers with unique local experiences

“In a remote and lush corner of southern Costa Rica lies a realm of giant trees, potbellied spider monkeys, harpy eagles, prowling jaguars and herds of white-lipped peccary. This is on the last places on Earth where virgin rainforest grows right to the high tide line, and a visitor might walk for hours – or days – along its isolated coast without meeting a single person. This the Osa Peninsula and there is no other place in the world like it.” – Trond Larsen, Osa: Where the Rainforest Meets the Sea

Quietly pushing off the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica lies the beautifully pristine Osa Peninsula, a magical paradise of untouched primitive rain forests, deserted beaches and rural communities relatively hidden to mainstream tourism. Known for its conservation efforts and robust ecotourism industry, the Osa Peninsula is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet with over 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity in less than one millionth of the Earth’s surface area. However, recent plans to open up an international airport threaten the very beauty, uniqueness and ecological diversity of this place both to its inhabitants and its flora and fauna. Sadly, as little as only 5% of all revenue made on tourism goes back into the local community and the rest goes into other hands.

It is here where conservationist and filmmaker Eytan Elterman and his good friend photographer Marco Bollinger lived for five months to produce the award-winning documentary “2.5 %  – The Osa Peninsula” that would change the course of their lives and inspire them to create Lokal, an online booking platform and marketplace for community-based tourism in remote places around the world.

It all began in early 2011 when Eytan read an article about the plans to build an international airport in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Both Eytan and Marco were deeply inspired by their years of traveling and their passion for engaging with diverse cultures and they wanted to combine their vision of responsible, conscious travel with their expertise in powerful visual storytelling. The story about the building of an airport in the Osa Peninsula greatly piqued their interest.

Eytan and Marco had been working together as the founders of iSeeiTravela boutique travel media firm producing brand-building documentary content to showcase local experiences, inspire sustainable travel and highlight unique destinations and conservation. Yet they wanted to do something different and on their own. They moved to the Costa Rica and spent five months living in the Osa Peninsula learning about the unique issues of this area and eventually producing their beautiful documentary film 2.5% – The Osa Peninsula.

Unspoiled coasline in Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. Photo credit: Lokal Travel

Unspoiled coastline in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Photo credit: Lokal Travel

Central America Conservation/Environment Costa Rica Global Issues Osa Peninsula TRAVEL BY REGION TRAVEL RESOURCES

A tribute to the beauty of Mother Earth

“Sooner or later, we will have to recognise that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans”. –  Evo Morales

Oh Mother Earth how I love thee. I am disheartened by the constant heartache you have to face.  The earthquakes, the floods, the wildfires and the taking away of your beauty. It saddens me greatly. You are such a beautiful place! I sincerely hope that future generations learn to love and protect you and don’t throw the beauty we have away. There is so much working against you.

As I breathe in the thick smoky, polluted air today that has blown in to Minnesota all the way from the fierce wildfires burning in Alberta, Canada, I am sad and filled with despair. When will we take better care of our most important thing we have? Our planet? 

Of course some of these forces are simply due to Mother Nature but many other devastating things are due to humans. How will you handle over 8 billion people living and taking your resources? I wish there was an easy answer.

Eagle Mountain, Minnesota

Our beautiful pristine Northern Minnesota.

“When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born”. – Thich Nhat Hanh


The green lush countryside of Guatemala

“You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer”. –  Thich Nhat Hanh

Conservation/Environment Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY Weekly Photo Challenges
Lago Cocibolca Granada Nicaragua

A sunset tour of Las Isletas in Granada

Imagine gently gliding through the smooth waters of Lago Cocibolca, Nicaragua’s largest lake, at the magical hour of sunset. As the local fishermen are throwing out their nets for the next morning catch and the school children are paddling home on dinghies from a long day at school. Imagine being the only passenger on a 20-seater boat with a Spanish-speaking fisherman steering the way.

That is where I found myself a few weeks ago at the end of my epic day of touring Granada on foot. In the serendipitous calm of the deep blue waters of Lago Cocibolca freckled in streaks of orange, purple and pink. Just me, my driver and the “Guapotona“, the “handsome tuna

Lago Cocibolca Granada Nicaragua

Conservation/Environment Global Issues Nicaragua TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION
The Adventure Project

The Adventure Project: Creating Jobs that Help People Thrive

Why Jobs? Because everyone deserves the opportunity to thrive. Yet, 1 billion people still live in extreme poverty. We have the power to change that”.  – Becky Straw and Jody Landers, Co-Founders of The Adventure Project

The more I travel and learn about the world, the more inspired I am to give back and make a difference. Besides writing on non-profits and volunteering, I also like to donate money to causes and non-profit work that I believe in. However, if you are like me, it can be extremely daunting knowing where to even begin especially because there are so many ways you can give and so many charities out there. You can give a one-time donation to a charity that you love, you can purchase a “gift that gives” back, you can finance micro-loans to small businesses or even pay for a girl to go to school or a clean birth kit for a mother in Africa. The list of ways to give back is endless.

Perhaps because it can be so incredibly overwhelming yet exciting all the same, I am passionate about finding new models of giving back and sharing these organizations with you on my blog. Today, I would like to introduce The Adventure Project, a non-profit that “adds venture” to offer education, tools and resources for people to become entrepreneurs and change their lives. I had the opportunity to speak with one of co-founders, Becky Straw, and learn more about the inspiration behind The Adventure Project and what she and co-founder Jody Landers are doing to change the world. Here is what I learned.

The Adventure Project

The Adventure Project Co-Founders, Jody Landers (left) & Becky Straw (right)
Photo credit: Esther Havens

Conservation/Environment Food Security Global Health Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD
Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

My Walk with the Maasai

“In the Book of Life, the answers aren’t in the back.” – Charles M. Schultz

Setting off on foot through the heart and soul of Maasai culture has always been a dream of mine. I had first heard of the Maasai people when I was volunteering for a week in Morocco. I was speaking with a fellow volunteer – a young American woman- who confessed her favorite travel stories in her life occurred when she visited the Maasai. Her embellished images of warrior men in black and women dressed in brightly colored clothing while drinking cow’s blood under the moonlight sky in the bush were what first intrigued me. Was it true that a people like this still lived on earth and still practiced their long-held traditions and cultures?

Years later, when I began my work as a social good blogger, I began to learn more about the Maasai people and the threat against their way of life. Some of the things I had believed to be true long ago were more or less myths yet other traditions both good and bad continued until this day. It wasn’t until I set out on foot with my english-speaking Maasai guide, Jacobo, in the Mkuru Training Camp near Arusha, Tanzania that I would discover for myself what the Maasai people were truly like and what challenges remained.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo leads the way and I follow along for the next four hours on foot, touring a small part of the Maasai community.

“Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t”. -Pete Seeger

I was thankful that I had Jacobo, the Camp Manager, who was born and raised in the community, to lead the way. He was exactly as I envisioned a Maasai warrior to be: Tall, elegantly thin, muscular and generously kind. He has faced some criticism from the community by integrating too much with Western culture yet overall his work and passion for his tribe outshines a few negative viewpoints. Although he is also the camp driver, speaks English, and is the face of the camp with all foreigners, he has retained his culture even down to what he eats.

We set off shortly after lunch in windy, dry weather. I had hoped the weather would be better but at least it wasn’t raining or boiling hot. I followed behind Jacobo, pen and paper in hand and asked him as many questions as I could about his way of life.

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

Welcome to the bush

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

The Maasai are among the best known ethnic groups in Africa due to their distinctive customs and dress. As nomadic pastoralists, they traditionally herded their cattle on seasonal rotations across the open savanna of Kenya and Tanzania yet new laws instituted by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments ended their traditions and forced many into camps where they have suffered poverty, malnutrition, lack of education and economic opportunities to survive. It is an all too common story with native cultures across the world and today many governments and NGOs are doing their best to preserve and protect these tribes from disappearing off the face of the earth.

Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

The grounds of the Mkuru Training Camp Maasai in Tanzania

As we walked, Jacobo pointed out the dried up river beds and the sparse vegetation. Most of the crops (maize and potatoes are the of the primary crops grown in the area) had already been harvested and the long barren months of the dry season had begun. One of the main problems for the Maasai community is malnutrition especially in children. The diet is basically meat, goat’s milk and grains with little or no fruit or vegetables. Although the camp has tried to alleviate malnutrition by providing meals at school, many Maasai hesitate to send their children because they are needed to herd the livestock (boys began herding as young as five years old), tend the house, fetch water and cook (the main responsibility of the girls). Despite the building of new schools in the community, attendance is very low and frequently dropping especially for girls.

The Maasai have a very unique social structure that is central to their culture. The head of society is the warrior class made up of boys and men, and status relates to age. A young boy starts out as a herder at the age of five and once he reaches puberty, he is set aside with the boys who will be soon circumcised and become junior warriors called “morani”. The morani range from 13-18 years of age and after circumcision remain in isolation and are dressed in black until they are healed. Once they reach maturity and have sufficient strength they become a full fledge warrior, dress in colorful clothing, and are in charge of protecting the community. They no longer kill a lion with a spear since that tradition has become illegal (by the government) but they are trained to fight.

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

Jacobo on left with his four brothers who have just been circumcised and wear black until they are ready to become moranis.

Maasai women and girls are traditionally in charge of the home and all work associated with family life such as fetching water, cooking and cleaning, making clothing and watching the very young children. Maasai women are known for their amazing beadwork and brilliant clothing. (I had written a great post about Maasai beading here)

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s mother

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Maasai beadwork has been integrated into the Mkuru community to empower women and give them economic opportunities to sell their work.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

A gorgeous Maasai beaded ankle bracelet.

Jacobo gave me a tour of his family boma, traditional mud huts made out of mud, dried cow dung and branches. Since the Maasai can have more than one wife, the entire family of husband, wives and children typically live together in a compound of 3-5 bomas depending on wealth. Each compound is surrounded by an open circle and fence made of thorny branches, where the livestock sleep safely at night, away from predators. The bomas are extremely basic with no electricity, no running water and oftentimes unsafe charcoal cookstoves are used inside the hut. The smoke from cooking turns the ceiling black with soot and you can imagine how bad it is for the family to inhale the fumes.

Entering the Jacobo’s family home (the fence for livestock is on the left hand side of the photo).

Jacobo’s extended family.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

One of the bomas.

 Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

A child peeks out and smiles. His face is covered in ash from the cookstove.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Since there is no electricity inside, the bomas are very dark. I tried my best to capture what they are like inside. You can see the cookstove on the far back righthand side of the photo.

Non-profit organizations such as Solar Sister (who I climbed Kilimanjaro with) are working hard to provide clean, safe cookstoves throughout the world. The benefits are immense and life-saving but sadly they have not reached the millions of people like in this community who need them. Not only are clean cookstoves healthier and safer, they also save ridiculous amounts of money which can be used on other essential things like education, farming, and crops.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The ceiling of the boma is black from the charcoal cookstove inside.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

An up close look at the thorny fence and corral for the livestock.

To my relief, I was well received by my Maasai friends who gladly gave me a tour of their bomas for a very small fee. I also purchased some beautiful handmade jewelry from Jacobo’s mother, a couple of bracelets and a necklace that I love to this day.

As we headed out to see more of the vast area, we ran into Jacobo’s dad, a retired warrior. I found that many of the men have a pretty luxurious life compared to the women. No longer truly in need of a warrior class to protect them against invaders, the men usually have plenty of leisure time to sit around and talk while the women did all the work.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s dad

Jacobo brought me to a special place that once a year the morani and warriors go for a few months to eat meat. Tradition holds that morani and warriors must remain strong and be the best fed of all. Therefore, every year they head up to the forest where they eat goat meat for two-three months. The women stay at home.

As we neared the camp, I could see women walking their donkeys with yellow plastic jugs. I asked Jacobo where they were going and he told me about the well. A few years ago,the camp dug a well which is open from 5-7 pm every day. Before the well, women and girls would spend hours each day fetching water so the new well has made a significant impact on their lives.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The women at the well

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

I thought about how such simple things as water are so easily taken for granted in the developed world. All I have to do is turn on the facet and out it comes, in plentiful supply. Seeing the well in person was a reminder how millions and millions of people around the world live. With little or no access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”. – Kahlil Gibran

Once we returned to camp, I was exhausted. It was quite an eye-opening day. I had a quiet dinner with Camila and the other European camp volunteer and they told me some of the more difficult stories about the camp. That female genital mutilation (FGM) is rampant in Tanzania despite it being banned and illegal by the government. That the process is horrifying and the young girl is cut with unsanitary knives and left to lay and bleed alone for months inside the boma. That Jacobo lost his first wife in childbirth because she was unable to deliver her baby safely after her the trauma caused by FGM. And the list goes on.

It was hard for me to reconcile my beliefs on how as a world we should intervene. Despite the belief that we should respect certain cultures and traditions that have been held since the beginning of mankind, it does not make them right or justifiable. Sadly change is difficult but not impossible.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

View outside my tent that night

Want to learn more? Here are some excellent articles:

“In Tanzania, Maasai women who reject FGM are refused as Brides” via Reuters

“Maasai in Tanzania: World Fame but Empty Stomachs” via the Guardian

Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

WaterAid – Tanzania (Fact: 14 million people in Tanzania have no choice but to drink dirty water from unsafe sources).


Adventure Travel Africa Conservation/Environment Food Security Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD Tanzania TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Women and Girls

#BeHerd: 96 Elephants are Killed in Africa Every Day

Did you know that 96 elephants are killed in Africa every single day? Over 30,000 African elephants die each year as a result of poaching. 

I knew that the poaching and killing of elephants for their tusks was a problem however I never fully understood the enormity and magnitude of the issue until I listened to an amazing podcast on NPR’s “Fresh Air” called  “GPS Trackers In Elephant Tusks Reveal Ivory Smuggling Route” (8/12/2015). It is a story that kept me at the edge of my seat for the entire hour and led me to read the full story in National Geographic (September 2015) by journalist Bryan Christy called How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa”. It is a fabulous, eye-opening account on how armed groups help fund operations by smuggling elephant ivory and how Christy developed fake tusks with hidden GPS trackers to track them down.

I love elephants and was fortunate enough to have seen them in the wild in South Africa on a safari (Check out my post: “Into the Wild My First Safari”). They are beautiful, majestic creatures. The thought that they are being killed simply for their tusks is horrible and something that must be stopped. However, it is not as easy as it seems.
South Africa SafariIMG_0255

This month, the Wildlife Conservation Society has launched a new campaign called 96 Elephants to bring awareness and take a stand on the fact that 96 elephants are killed in Africa every day.  Founded in 1895, The Wildlife Conservation Society has the clear mission to save wildlife and wild places across the globe. In 2012, poachers killed approximately 35,000 elephants in Africa for their tusks. 96 elephants are killed in Africa every day for their tusks.

Adventure Travel Conservation/Environment Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises South Africa TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION

It’s Time to Set the World Aflame! #2030NOW Social Good Summit

SGS 2014 Share Graphic 3

The 5th Annual Social Good Summit was held this year at 92nd Street Y from September 20-22, 2014 and streamed around the world in multiple languages.


Last night I returned home after attending my third Social Good Summit in New York City, this year as a United Nations Foundation Social Good Fellow. The Social Good Summit is a unique convening of world leaders, new media and technology experts, grassroots activists and voices from around the world that come together for a two-day conference coinciding with the United Nations General Assembly meeting held during UN Week.


“Social media is one of the most powerful tools in creating social change” ~ #JimmyCarter #2030Now



The theme of this year’s summit – #2030NOW: Connecting for Good, Connecting for All challenged speakers, participants and a growing worldwide community to explore how technology and new media can be leveraged to benefit people everywhere, to spark discussion and ignite change in creating a better world for all by the year 2030.

Conservation/Environment Food Security Global Health Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD
Pure Iceland

Earth Day 2014: A Day to Reflect Upon and Cherish Our Amazing Planet

I have always been someone who is strongly connected to nature and the amazing world we live in. As we head into the next several decades and I watch my children grow, I become increasingly concerned about the fragility of our planet and our inability to protect what is most sacred: Mother Earth. Without fresh water or food to feed a growing population that is expected to reach 9 billion, what will we have? We are already seeing the devastating impact of global climate change yet not much has changed to stop it. There are even people who still don’t believe it is real.

So today on Earth Day, I wonder what will become of our planet? Will we have a place so full of beauty and life that we do now? Or will it all be gone?

Tour de Vanoise France

Taking a break and breathing in the fresh pure air of the French Alps.

I’m not trying to sound pessimistic but I take the effects of global climate change seriously. I even take it perhaps a bit too far to overcompensate for what we are doing to our planet. I recycle as much as possible, I try to cut down on waste, I stop the water tap instead of letting it run and I always bring reusable bags for shopping. I realize that I am often the only one in line at the store with my reusable bag while everyone is putting even one tiny item into a plastic or paper bag that they don’t need. It is all such a waste.

But sadly the little things that I am doing isn’t enough. We need everyone to come together to protect our world before the world we know is gone. So on this special Earth Day 2014, let us each think of one small thing we can do to reduce, reuse and recycle. To cherish, protect and save our planet.

We have so much at stake. Like this….

Conservation/Environment Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD
Seventh Generation

Toxin Freedom Fighters: Standing Up For Safer Chemicals

Disclaimer: This post is a part of a sponsored awareness program and campaign by Seventh Generation to raise awareness and demand change to the Toxic Substances Control Act by April 30, 2014. All the research for this post was provided by Seventh Generation but all the views below are my own. 

As a mom, advocate and someone who cares deeply about our planet, I have joined an exciting new campaign sponsored by Seventh Generation, a leading producer and distributor of environmentally-safe household products, to raise awareness about the hundreds of toxic chemicals in our products that are hurting our families and our world.

Toxic chemicals are a great concern of mine. I take pride in the fact that I read product labels carefully and always try to buy environmentally friendly and safe products to use in my home. This applies to every product I by: Food, household products and toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner and soap.  I honestly thought I was doing a good job by keeping nasty, toxic chemicals out of my body, my families bodies and the environment.

Yet like most consumers, I was wrong. I was unaware that of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals introduced into the American market since the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, only a mere 10% of them have required testing by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Therefore, that means thousands of synthetic chemicals are currently being used in our products that we have no idea whether or not they are safe to our bodies and our planet.

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Conservation/Environment Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD

The Palm Oil Controversy

As a mother and advocate who cares deeply about our planet and is extremely concerned about global climate change, the debate about palm oil is extremely important to me. Earlier in the year, I wrote about palm oil on behalf of Rainforest Action Network in the following post here and argued that large food manufacturers must put an end to using conflict palm oil in their food. Sadly, palm oil is found in nearly 50 percent of the packaged foods on our grocery store shelves, and it is also the leading cause of orangutan extinction and rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.

After learning about the negative impact of conflict palm oil, I made a personal choice to ban buying any products or brands that use conflict palm oil in their products. Like my issue with chocolate (read my post “The Dark Side of Chocolate”), ethically I feel it is a decision I had to made. I said goodbye to my favorite peanut butter and also stopped buying Cheese-Its for my kids. When they asked me why I explained what conflict palm oil is doing to our environment and why it is critical that we speak up about it.

Speaking out against conflict palm oil has definitely lead to some exciting changes. Earlier this week, Mars Inc. a 30 billion dollar US snack food company, heeded the pressure of advocacy groups such as Rainforest Action Network and announced a sweeping new responsibly palm oil procurement commitment plan that promises to eliminate rainforest destruction, human rights violations and climate pollutions from their supply chains or be dropped by 2015. (Read full press release here). 

Given the new developments in the palm oil debate, I wanted to feature a guest post about palm oil along with a recent US Scorecard released by the Union of Concerned Scientists about the recent push for debate about conflict palm oil.

Infographic courtesy of Rainforest Action Network

Infographic courtesy of Rainforest Action Network

Conservation/Environment Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises SOCIAL GOOD
National Geographic Kids Cover

Interview with National Geographic Editor Rachel Bucholz

Yesterday I participated in an interview with National Geographic Kids and Little Kids editor Rachel Bucholz to learn about the ins and outs of working for such an amazing organization. I have long been a fan of National Geographic’s magazines ranging from the popular yellow-framed bordered National Geographic to National Geographic Traveler, Kids and Little Kids. I love to learn about our amazing planet and being a National Geographic Kids Insider has given me the opportunity to get an even more in-depth view of all the fabulous things National Geographic is involved in.

Rachel has worked as an editor for over 20 years and has also authored several books. She currently works as editor and Vice President of National Geographic Kids and Little Kids magazine where she thoroughly enjoys inspiring children to become future stewards of our planet. As the nation’s most popular kids’ magazine, it was really fascinating to learn more about what makes National Geographic Kids so wonderful and keeps children wanting to read more. Here is what Rachel had to say.

What is your day to day job like and what do you enjoy most about being an editor for National Geographic Kids and Little Kids?

Conservation/Environment CULTURE Global Issues