Making clothes to save endangered wildlife

March 21, 2008 8:07:44 PM PDT
Wildlife groups all over the world have been collecting donations to save endangered animals for years, but a Bay Area man is pioneering a new idea. Instead of a charity to save animals, he's created a business to help them. After 10 years of hard work, the idea is paying off.

In 1996, Mike Korchinsky took a trip to Africa. It changed his life. Korchinsky was a successful management consultant in San Francisco. He sold his company and went on vacation in Kenya.

On that trip, he was horrified to discover the problems that existed between the spectacular wildlife and the local villagers.

"The only time they ever come into contact with the wildlife is in a conflict situation. Either an elephant comes at night to raid the crops they spent six months growing or a lion comes and kills their cow they spent three years rearing," says Korchinsky.

Korchinsky learned that villagers in an area called Rukinga saw no value to the wildlife. So, as the human population grew, the villagers moved farther into the bush, killing animals and clearing the land for farms. Much of the wildlife was gone, and the land was being ruined.

"The tragedy of it is the land isn't very good farm land and so somebody needed to create value for those local people from the wildlife, so they would be able to develop economically, based on protecting the wildlife rather than killing and clearing the bush," says Korchinsky.

After a lot of research, Korchinsky came up with a business plan. He called it Wildlife Works. He bought 80,000 acres and turned it in to a wildlife refuge. Local villagers were hired as rangers. Then he built a small factory nearby to make money to support the refuge.

"We trained local women to sew, women that had never, essentially never had a job before. These were all subsistence farmers, struggling to survive," says Korchinsky.

Korchinsky wanted to pay good wages and give health benefits, so instead of making cheap clothes, workers learned to make premium quality products that could be sold at a solid profit.

"This represents probably what we are best known for. These are bright colorful fashionable fitted t-shirts and tank tops made with organically grown cotton," says Korchinsky.

Over the years, workers' skill level improved. They started a line of high fashion designs, all made of eco-friendly materials. First the clothes were sold online and in high-end boutiques. Then, a few months ago, Wildlife Works opened a store of its own on Union Street in San Francisco. They held a party to introduce their spring line to some very enthusiastic customers.

"It's quality. It's beautifully designed," said one customer.

"This is my favorite store in San Francisco. It's the only place to find so many great sustainable, eco-friendly, organic designers," said another customer.

Proceeds from the store and clothing line continue to go to the wildlife sanctuary and village in Kenya. Now, with the land protected, many of the animals, once chased away, are back.

Korchinsky is still putting some of his own money into the project, but he believes the clothing business and refuge will soon be self-sustaining.

"I'll stick with it as long as I can afford to stick with it and hopefully if people continue to buy our products we'll be able to grow and solve the problem in other places," says Korchinsky.

And so ABC7 Salutes Mike Korchinsky. His model for helping both animals and people has been so successful that other conservation groups are looking into trying the same thing.

If you want to find out more about the clothes or the wildlife, visit www.wildlifeworks.com.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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