Elizabeth Schrank/Elephantopia

Elizabeth Schrank of Mesa founded Elephantopia a few years ago out of concern for their possible extinction at the hands of hunters who slaughter the animals for their tusks.

Kavala, a 12-year-old orphaned elephant in faraway Zambia, needs the support and protection of humans until she can join a herd.

Her mother was shot by poachers in 2011 and Kavala was found three weeks later with an abscess on her knee and many infected sores on her body.

Mesa nonprofit Elephantopia, which has a mission to save elephants and build community, is sponsoring Kavala, who lives in an orphanage run by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. Next weekend, a Gilbert business is hosting an event to help the organization.

“Every day, they get to walk in the Kafue National Park. They have a guard, and it’s a hands-off policy. They let the elephants be elephants,” said Elizabeth Schrank, a Mesa resident who founded Elephantopia a few years ago. “The goal is that, hopefully, she’s going to meet a wild herd of elephants that will accept her, and she will go and live with that herd.

“Until then, she knows that she’s safe with this community of orphaned elephants because there are about 13 of them altogether and she doesn’t have to worry about getting attacked by poachers.”

Elephantopia, which fundraises via crowdsourcing and special events, is seeking 50 participants for a “paint, sip and relax” event on World Elephant Day, Aug. 12 at Painting with a Twist in Gilbert.

The “twist” is that eco-conscious individuals, while socializing and painting Kavala’s likeness, will help raise about $800 of the annual $3,000 needed to nurture her.

Without protection, poachers will take Kavala’s tusks and sell them in Asia’s illegal ivory trade to be fashioned into carvings or jewelry or crushed into a powder believed to have medicinal value.

This year, China banned the ivory trade, but it continues illegally.

According to the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, about 144,000 elephants were killed for their ivory from 2007 to 2014. Only about 450,000-600,000 elephants survive in the African wild today. By 2025, the existence of forest elephants will be threatened.

About 7,600 elephants live in Zambia. According to the 2015 Great Elephant Census in Zambia, the population is stable in some portions of the country.

In Sioma Ngwezi National Park, elephants are almost extinct. The World Wildlife Fund says there were 1,089 elephants there in 2004 and by 2015 there were only 48.

There’s a glimmer of hope, however.

“It’s a slowing trend,” Schrank said. “It used to always be an average of 96 elephants a day were being killed (globally) for ivory. That number is lowering, meaning the protections put in place are working and the public outcry is starting to take effect.”

Schrank fell in love with the huge mammal when, as a child, she got the opportunity to feed one at a zoo. She assumed that they’ll always be around.

As an adult living in South Africa, she experienced them in the wild. She also learned of their status as a keystone species in the African ecosystem – without elephants, hundreds of other plant and animal species would cease to exist because many animals depended on their droppings to exist.

“If you take the elephants out of the equation, all of a sudden – over a hundred tree species relied on elephants for propagation – all of a sudden, you’re going to lose a lot of different tree species, different birds and other animals that use the droppings,” Schrank said.

She also learned about the ongoing human-elephant conflict.

In South Africa, she lived in a village where most people were subsistence farmers, who grow food for themselves and their families.

“So, when an elephant came through and ate all their crops, it was a real issue because they can’t go to the store and get more food. That was their food,” she said, adding, “It was eye-opening.”

Hence, Elephantopia believes not just in saving the animals, but also building community.

“After having lived there for a while and visited so often, you can’t really do one without the other,” she said. “The people who are there 24/7, they are the ones who have to deal with elephants walking in 24/7 through their backyards. You’ve got to support them, so they can make their own livelihood.”

That would be the first step to securing their help to conserve the wildlife around them, Schrank said.

To that end, Elephantopia, which operates with a handful of volunteers, has done other projects.

With a $5,000 grant from Tempe Rotary Club, it has installed water wells for the entire Mukambi community, which is located just outside Kafue National Park, and donated math sets and paid the school fees of the 80 students at Mukambi Community School.  

Elephantopia’s new focus is men in their 30s and 40s, who are often overlooked. This is also the age group that resorts to poaching as a livelihood because they don’t have an education or training to aspire for a job.

Schrank, a music teacher by profession who runs her own studio, wants to establish a project to help support small businesses for these people so they can make an honest living. An example would be training to become safari guides or drivers.

“It’s just a matter of finding those people a niche,” she said.

Schrank’s next visit to Zambia will be in 2020 with a small group of volunteers to work on her plans. She is also looking for volunteers to “join the herd,” as she calls it, and help fundraise, share on social media or even travel to Zambia.

In the meantime, Elephantopia uses World Elephant Day to draw attention to the animals’ plight and call people to support organizations that are working to stop illegal poaching and trade of elephant ivory.

Last year, the nonprofit reached more than 100 people at the Phoenix Zoo with educational activities for children, including opportunities to send a “thank you” letter to rangers protecting elephants in Zambia.

Other initiatives it has led include the Global March for Elephants, Photo Safaris to Zambia and participation in a successful petition and letter to the Chinese government to halt the sales of ivory in China.

This year, in addition to the event in Gilbert, Elephantopia also is hosting events in Virginia and Texas.

Every bit helps to ensure that the species survives and thrives on this planet for generations to come, she said.

“It’s not just the issue of ‘Oh, my favorite animal’s not there anymore,’” Schrank said. “It’ll change the whole ecosystem.”

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