In the first story in a series celebrating the amazing things young New Zealanders do every day, James Kehoe Rowden talks to Angela Cuming about his commitment to protecting the environment, and how little can make a big difference.
There are some people who see rubbish littering our streets and beaches and think to themselves ‘gee that’s bad’ but keep on walking. And then there is six-year-old James Kehoe Rowden.
The pint-sized environmentalist powerhouse is a regular fixture in the streets of his home city of Wellington, picking up rubbish that – in all likelihood – others much older than him have left behind.
Joined by mum Thalia Kehoe Rowden, James will don kid-sized gardening gloves and fill bags full of anything and everything he finds on his street, his neighbourhood and, most importantly, the beach.
”When I first got started thinking about rubbish in the sea, I was on a walk with my dad and I was climbing around the rocks, when I found some rubbish,” James says.
”Then I got inspired to pick up rubbish since I knew that it was a good idea. We pick up rubbish because the rubbish can get into the storm water drains, even on your street, if you don’t pick it up. It’s also a good idea to pick it up on the beach if there’s some there.”
A deep love of animals is the main driver behind James’ intolerance to trash.”Rubbish is bad for animals because they can get into some animals’ homes or the rubbish could get stuck on them or they could swallow them,” James says.
”One of the penguins at the zoo, he had a sore flipper because some fishing line got stuck on him, that is not good.”
James has recently joined The Plastic Club, which aims to reduce plastic bags ending up in the ocean. The club was started by seven-year-old Harmony Perrie from her Masterton home, and it encourages its members to partake in ”plastic walks”, where they walk around their local streets and pick up plastic and other bits of litter.
On a typical day James will collect everything from cigarette butts to glass bottles, toilet rolls and plastic straws. He will sort through his haul and separate the recyclables, then the rest is safely and properly disposed of, meaning nothing ends up in local waterways or, critically, the ocean.
The love and enthusiasm James has for protecting the environment and in particular animals has been fostered by his involvement at Zealandia and Wellington Zoo – he’s an ‘Ambassador’ at the zoo and one of Zealandia’s ‘Junior Rangers’ – and he regularly visits both.
On a recent visit to Auckland Zoo James learned about the problem posed by palm oil plantations and is now committed to doing something about it. Endangered species threatened by palm oil include Sumatra’s tigers, rhinos and elephants, as well as orangutans.
”James’ favourite animals are tigers,” says Thalia.
He is very concerned that three subspecies of tiger have already gone extinct – the Javan, Caspian and Bali tigers – and the remaining six subspecies are all endangered.
”The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered, with only a few hundred left in the world. Their habitat is being cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, and that’s what James wants to help stop. James visits the Sumatran tigers at Wellington Zoo, Senya and Bashi, every week when he helps out at the Zoo’s Wild Start programme.”
In a recent blog post mum Thalia described the moment her ”heart swelled” when James returned from a zoo visit after learning that palm oil plantations take over the habitats of endangered animals like orangutans.
”He wanted to do something about it,” she wrote, ”and we talked about activism and maximising our impact – that it would make a small difference if we avoided palm oil ourselves, but a larger impact if we worked to encourage other people to do that, and joined with other people to make systemic changes”.
Determined to make a difference, James looked up Auckland Zoo’s palm oil shopping guide and worked with his mum to remove products containing palm oil from the kitchen pantry, right down to the lolly snakes he had loved so much.
What next for James? He’s in the process of setting up a club for children who, like him, are concerned about the impact of palm oil on animals and, as mum Thalia wrote, will continue to use his voice for good.
”Once he asked me to call his friend, who is six years old, so he could make sure he knew all about this, ‘because he loves animals, too, so he won’t want to buy any palm oil’.
“They had an earnest conversation about the issue. It’s the first time he’s used the phone for this kind of communication with a friend, so I’m not sure how effective it was, but I did love that he was so moved to share the news. He has a list of friends he wants to talk to, and he’s sure they’ll all be on board. He’s probably right – they’re kids, and much more reliable about this stuff’.”
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.