Waccabuc woman works to save African elephants

They are the largest land mammals to inhabit the earth today, sometimes weighing up to 14 tons and, as apex predators, they have no natural enemies — except man.

That’s why they’re endangered. And every year, 30,000 more lose their lives to ivory-seeking poachers.

Sickened by this state of affairs, organizations like Bloody Ivory, Save the Elephants and Elephant Highway are advocating for change. The media has also taken up the issue, airing documentaries that expose the harsh realities of the situation, like “Gardener of Eden” and “Ivory Trade,” along with PBS’ “Battle for the Elephants” and “My Wild Affair: The Elephant Who Found a Mom,” about The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT). Meanwhile, actress Elizabeth Hurley, NBA player Yao Ming and designer Diane von Furstenburg, are among the celebrities advocating to protect elephants — which face particular challenges in forest environments.

Enter Helen LeBrecht of Waccabuc, founder of Passion for Pachyderms.

A LONG TIME COMIN’

About five years ago, LeBrecht founded Passion for Pachyderms, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing the extinction of African elephants in the wild. The organization lobbies against the selling of ivory and the importation of elephant “trophies” in America and hosts benefits to raise funds for DSWT, an organization based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to protect African animals, specifically endangered species, and their natural habitats. So far, two benefits have been held, with plans underway for a third in October 2017.

“Everything I do is for The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust,” LeBrecht says.

As she talks, it’s clear that LeBrecht’s passion has permeated all areas of her life.

LeBrecht — who’s been vegan for years — wears a flattering, knee-length, white dress with an all-over pattern of pink elephants, complemented by a delicate, gold elephant necklace. Her cell phone case design is an elephant amid paisley in shades of cerulean, teal and sky blues. And her home is a montage of animal figurines, paintings, woodcarvings, rugs and even handmade pillows, stitched by LeBrecht herself.

But her passion is most conveyed through her eyes. As LeBrecht shares a short video about an orphan elephant, she begins tearing, a silent testament to the compassion in her work.

LeBrecht is particularly devoted to the Orphan’s Project, one of DSWT’s many initiatives. The program rescues and rehabilitates infant elephants and rhinoceroses that have been orphaned, usually as a result of poaching, conflict, deforestation and drought. LeBrecht’s connection to the cause began years ago, when she and her two children met Baraka, a 3-month-old orphan elephant (whose name means “blessing” in Swahili) at a friend’s ranch in Kenya. This made a big impression on the family.

“They had two elephants at the ranch that they rescued from zoos, and then they had this orphan elephant,” LeBrecht says. “The kids gave him bottles every day. But we inadvertently found out that Baraka had died shortly after we left…It sort of captured my fantasy that these babies should have a life, even if they’ve lost their mothers.”

According to DSWT, orphan elephants grieve and pine for their mothers, often for several months, and not all of them survive this critical period. Then, too, it’s difficult to recreate the mother’s milk, which has a high fat content. In “My Wild Affair: The Elephant Who Found a Mom” — which tells the heartbreaking story of Aisha, the first orphan baby Daphne Sheldrick tried to save — viewers see the trials and errors of early orphan “parenting.”

“For elephants that are rescued, they must be nursed a certain way, so as to mimic the attachment to the mother,” she says. “If an elephant recognizes that this attachment is absent, it could severely impact their health.”

Today, the orphans at the Sheldrick Trust are given bottles of specialist formula, with a blanket covering their heads to imitate the maternal bond, and live with a group of minders so they don’t get too attached to one person.

LeBrecht herself was given the chance to help an orphan elephant years after Baraka, which ultimately inspired her to found Passion for Pachyderms.

“My daughter has always been passionate about elephants since she was young,” LeBrecht says. “For my birthday, she gave me the fostering of an animal with David Sheldrick.”

DSWT’s fostering program allows a “parent” to foster an animal for a minimum annual fee of $50. The parent can select from a list of animals that need fostering, which includes photographs and personal stories. Throughout the year, the parent then receives monthly updates and photographs of his animal, as well as a newsletter and additional material.

“That was really the beginning,” LeBrecht says.

HER HEART ON HER SLEEVE

With a life spent alongside animals, it’s no surprise that LeBrecht chose this path.

When she was a young girl, LeBrecht’s father — who she describes as an “environmentalist before the word existed” — brought home an adopted half dog-half wolf from Alaska, where he was stationed in World War II. Shortly after, she adopted a dog, named Blazer, followed by Onyx, a rescue cat who accompanied her to Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences, where she studied geology; Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where she studied mineralogy; and to Cornell Law School, where she studied environmental law.

She currently has a dog, Rembrandt; a cat, Baby Cat; a rabbit, Winslow; and a 21-year-old parrot, Zucci.

“I don’t believe that human beings should ever ‘own’ an animal,” LeBrecht says. “I think they ‘share’ their lives with us and we’re very fortunate to have their compassionate and unqualified love.”

More information about Passion for Pachyderms will soon be available at passionforpachyderms.org. For more about The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, visit sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

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