Meet the Irish woman trying to preserve the environment

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Laura Kehoe is studying links between Europe and deforestation in Latin America

Laura Kehoe is passionate about the natural world. In the name of conservation, she has chased herds of wildebeest and stalked leopards in South Africa, given shrews haircuts and filmed chimpanzees in Guinea. Now she’s investigating how meat consumption in Europe drives deforestation in Latin America.

Her interest in wild animals and nature conservation doesn’t hail from exotic lands, but rather from her home neighbourhood of Castleknock, west Dublin. “I was always fascinated by all kinds of animals. I used to walk my dog past Dublin Zoo. Back then, the perimeter wasn’t boarded up and you could watch the animals through the gaps in the fence. I will always be intrigued by how other species think and act.”

A psychology degree in Maynooth was her first academic port of call, where she learned about how bees dance to tell each other where the best flowers are and how octopuses have brains in each tentacle. During her undergraduate degree, Kehoe realised there was no point in being fascinated by animals if they were being driven to extinction. She decided to work full time to protect animals in the wild.

So, after completing her degree in 2009, she did a masters in wildlife biology and conservation at Edinburgh Napier University – as there was nothing like that available in Ireland at the time.

In 2010, after completing her masters, Kehoe landed a job with the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation in the Republic of Guinea, where she led research on a community of wild chimpanzees that had never before been studied.

“We found something really unexpected, the chimps were throwing stones at specific trees throughout our study area.”

Kehoe spent many months in the field, along with a team of 80 other researchers trying to understand what these chimps were up to. “It was an incredible experience. We still don’t know why they are repeatedly throwing stones at certain trees – it’s devastating to think that we will likely never know because we continue to push these animals to extinction – their population has dropped by 80 per cent in the past 25 years.”

Kehoe then became a research fellow at the Kino Bay Centre in Sonora, Mexico where she worked on community engagement projects to protect whales and birds.

In 2012, she moved to Berlin to do a PhD at Humboldt University on global food systems and their impact on wildlife. One morning while procrastinating from working on her PhD, Kehoe read a study on global tree loss: “There are currently about three trillion trees on earth. It sounds like a lot, but we used to have double that at the dawn of civilisation – before we started axing them. I divided this by the number of people alive today and realised that we have lost 400 trees per person.”

Spurred by this statistic, she spearheaded a campaign called 400trees.org. “Planting the right trees under the right conditions is one of the most effective ways of absorbing CO2, providing wildlife habitat, and increasing food production,” she says.

“So far, we have planted over 100,000 trees as part of food forests – supporting farmers who are struggling to grow food in the age of climate breakdown, and taking pressure off natural areas.”

The trees fix nitrogen to the soil and prevent erosion, they are crucial to regenerating the land. People, she says, can donate to the project on the website.

Since September 2018, Kehoe is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, where she is investigating the destructive effects of importing cheap livestock feed to the EU.

“We’ve been researching how an average European dinner is causing the destruction of tropical forests abroad. The EU is a world leader in importing commodities that drive deforestation. Between 1990 and 2008, EU imports caused deforestation equivalent to the size of Portugal. Right now we deforest one football pitch an hour as a result of trade with Brazil alone.” she says.

In April 2019, she was first author on a letter published in Science, which was sent to EU leaders and signed by 600 scientists and 300 indigenous groups under a common goal to make current trade negotiations with Brazil conditional on protecting human rights and the environment.

Kehoe is living in Guanajuato, Mexico, where she’s working on a project modelling solutions on a national level for agriculture and wildlife.

“I love living in Mexico, the people are hilarious and just down-to-earth lovely. It reminds me of Ireland in that way – but with better weather.”

Kehoe says she enjoys a quiet life in a city of cobbled streets and colonial architecture, the opposite, she says of what people often think life in Mexico entails.

Though she is happy in academia for now, Kehoe says she could be tempted to leave academia to spend her time pressuring the Irish Government to treat climate change and ecological collapse as the emergency that it is.

“We are entering the age of planetary breakdown. This month the UK declared an environment and climate emergency, I would love Ireland to do the same.”

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