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Can an Elephant Called Penelope Petunia Save Her Own Kind?

By Tracy Tullis

Adults often say that today’s children will inherit the problems that previous generations have created—especially our degraded environment­—and that it’ll be up to them to find solutions and make things right.

Students at PS 107, an elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, are getting a head start.

This spring, the fifth graders at PS 107 researched, wrote, and illustrated a book about African forest elephants and the poaching crisis that has devastated their herds.

The book, called One Special Elephant: The Story of Penelope Petunia, is told from the perspective of an elephant calf who lives with her extended family in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, in the Central African Republic.

Penelope describes the everyday pleasures of her life in Dzanga Bai, a clearing in the forest where elephants gather, sometimes more than a hundred at a time. Locals call it “the village of elephants.”

She explains the critical role of elephants in the ecology of the forest, and the ever-present threat of poachers.

“My family, friends and I are in great danger,” Penelope warns. “Humans called poachers are hunting and killing us for our beautiful ivory tusks, just to make statues and figurines. We have a whole world out here, and some people are trying to destroy it.”

 

Elephants in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park. Photograph by Remi Pognante.
Elephants in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park. Photograph by Remi Pognante.

 

The project was organized by Katherine Eban, a journalist and mother of two girls at PS 107. Three years ago Eban was feeling anguished about the poaching crisis and decided she had to find some tangible way to help—“or else,” she says, “I was going to lose my mind.”

A Think-Local Solution

Her think-local solution was the Beast Relief committee, whose mission is to educate students about endangered species.

The Beasties, as members call themselves (I’m one), began organizing various conservation-related activities at the school, but Eban wanted to do something more—to create a long-term learning experience that would really “soak in.”

So she proposed a research and writing assignment that would be integrated into the fifth grade nonfiction writing curriculum, and the school’s principal enthusiastically agreed.

Last year’s fifth graders wrote a book about endangered Sumatran rhinos: One Special Rhino: The Story of Andatu.

This year’s class tackled the plight of central Africa’s forest elephants.

To get the project rolling, Eban contacted the Wildlife Conservation Society, which put her in touch with Andrea Turkalo, a scientist who has been studying elephants in the Central African Republic for more than 20 years.

Turkalo agreed to share her knowledge of the Dzanga-Ndoki herds, selecting a young elephant she’d named Penelope to be the heroine and narrator of the story.

The collaboration involved logistical challenges for Turkalo: Not surprisingly, email connections from her solar-powered, thatch-roofed house in the forest weren’t always reliable.

Thea Lawson. Photograph by Tracy Tullis.
Thea Lawson. Photograph by Tracy Tullis.

One of the fifth-grade authors, Thea Lawson, said she was ambivalent at first. The class had watched a video about poaching, which she found upsetting. “But then,” she said, “I realized doing this could help the elephants, so I really wanted to do it.”

All 89 fifth graders researched the book. They learned about elephants’ complex social lives and communication.

They learned why elephants are called the gardeners of the forest: How their dung spreads seeds, and how they pull down large shrubs and trees, creating sunlit clearings where plants can grow—which means habitat and food for smaller animals.

The students also learned of the dangers that intrude in the elephants’ peaceful world: In May 2013, a gang of Sudanese mercenaries hired by a local rebel group arrived in Dzanga Bai. The soldiers—armed with Kalashnikovs—drove off the park’s guards, and when they left, the village of elephants was scattered with 26 carcasses, the tusks sawed off.

When the students read about this horrific incident, they wanted to know if Penelope had been at the scene of the massacre. Counting back from her birth date—22 months of gestation—they realized their heroine had been in utero. That poignant detail was included in the book.

Once the research and some of the writing was done, a number of the students volunteered to work for several more weeks during their lunch break (even skipping recess!) to finish the text and illustrations.

The book, with an introduction by Jane Goodall, is available on Amazon. All proceeds are donated to help support Turkalo’s research on the forest elephants.

“The Highlight of My Trip”

Soon after Penelope Petunia was published, the students got to meet their long-distance scientific advisor. While on home leave last month, Andrea Turkalo visited the school and talked about what it’s like to have elephants as neighbors. “It was the highlight of my trip,” she said.

Luna Milligan, one of the authors, especially enjoyed Turkalo’s story about the thief of Dzanga Bai.

Luna Milligan (Amy Yang)
Luna Mulligan. Photograph by Amy Yang.

It seems that various objects were disappearing from her house, so she aimed a camera at the door, hoping to capture the culprit on film. The next morning, sure enough, a pair of boots was missing.

“They caught the thief,” Luna reported: The images showed an elephant’s trunk reaching through the door and swiping the boots. (What happened to the boots remains a mystery; Turkalo speculates that the elephant ate them.)

The students also hosted “author visits” with the younger grades, reading aloud from the book and answering questions.

Zoë Heath. Photograph by Tracy Tullis.
Zoë Heath. Photograph by Tracy Tullis.

Zoë Heath, another of the authors, and Luna recalled their favorite question, from a kindergartener: “Did you go to Africa to study the elephants?”

When the authors presented their work to the fourth graders, they explained that this was now a school tradition—they’ll be writing their own book next year.

Not every 11-year-old would choose to skip recess to work on a non-compulsory research project.

But when I asked several of the students about that sacrifice, Thea didn’t hesitate: “We got to write and illustrate a book, we did an author visit, and hopefully we helped these elephants. It was definitely worth it.”

Tracy Tullis is a freelance journalist who especially enjoys writing about animal welfare and conservation, education, and criminal justice. She lives in Brooklyn, half a block from PS 107.