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Teen Conservationist Stands Up for Elephants 

Published October 1, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge Taegen accepts a conservation award from Prince William - COURTESY OF TAEGEN YARDLEY
  • courtesy of taegen yardley
  • Taegen accepts a conservation award from Prince William

Name: Taegen Yardley
Age: 16
Town: Stowe

In 2015, when she was in sixth grade, Taegen Yardley shared her passion for elephants by testifying at the Vermont Statehouse in support of H.297, a bill to ban the sale of ivory in Vermont. As she began speaking, she noticed one senator set down her knitting and lean forward to listen intently. That, she said, made her realize that kids' voices can make an impact. She decided then to "make it my mission to try to get youth involved in conservation," she said.

Now a junior at Stowe High School, Taegen's interest in ivory originated when she learned about the possible extinction of elephants from a friend's mom who worked for National Geographic. She joined the local effort to pass H.297, and, in addition to speaking at the Statehouse, organized a student march at Burlington's City Hall. Though the bill failed, Taegen's determination to pair activism with education was cemented.

In the years since, Taegen has made five documentaries about wildlife conservation. Her first, "Kids Battle for a World with Elephants," was released in 2016, when she was a student at Vermont Commons School, and was widely viewed on YouTube and Facebook. Taegen wrote the script and worked with teacher and filmmaker Mark Cline Lucey on cinematography. The documentary features local students sharing information about elephants, with footage from two conservation groups, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Big Life Foundation. The film was screened on the floor of the United Nations to mark World Wildlife Day in 2016.

"Seeing it had that impact and was so widespread really pushed me," said Teagan. "Young people are the future of the planet. If we don't start making change, there's not going to be change."

Her subsequent films cover topics including wild African cats and healthy oceans and marine life. Her films have also been shown at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) meetings in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Wildlife roundtable at the Global Environment Facility Assembly in Vietnam.

Additionally, her work earned her first prize in nonprofit Action For Nature's International Young Eco-Hero Award, in the 13- to 16-year-old category. This year, Taegen also received an honorable mention in the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which recognizes young people who have demonstrated an outstanding impact on communities and the environment. Last fall, Taegen traveled to London to receive a conservation award from Interpol, presented by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.

Her outspoken activism, Taegen acknowledges, has also come with criticism. Her detractors have questioned the validity of Taegen's voice. Some have argued that, because she's a Vermont resident, the topic of elephants isn't relevant to her, or that she's too young to have a voice for change. "I honestly think that's just pushed me harder" to educate people, she said.

Her parents, Kristin and Mark Yardley, have encouraged Taegen and their two younger daughters to believe in their own power. It's "a gift to watch as this is validated through the experiences, opportunities and recognition that Taegen has been offered because of her passion and persistence," they wrote in an email.

Taegen hopes to use the experience she's gained as a youth activist in a career in environmental science or international relations. "I love giving speeches," she said, "and I very much love communicating with people."

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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