How did a group of Brooklyn, NY, fifth graders come to write and publish two books about endangered animals, gain the endorsement of Jane Goodall, and raise money to protect elephants and rhinos continents away?
It started with a jar. In May 2012, Katherine Eban, a journalist whose children attended P.S. 107 in Brooklyn, was between assignments and feeling upset about the global increase in animal trafficking. Wanting to do something, she stood outside the school with a jar and asked for spare change as part of the International Rhino Foundation‘s “Cinco de Rhino” campaign. She collected $500 that day—but more important, she sparked interest in the issue. “Another parent wanted to join, and we started this group”—the school’s Beast Relief Committee, which Eban founded and cochairs.
At first, the committee focused on growing the school’s own Cinco de Rhino, now an annual event, and parents helped develop related art projects for students that were tied to school events. Then, in the summer of 2012, Eban learned about Andatu, the first rhinoceros born in captivity in a wildlife park in Indonesia. Given the small global population of the species, Eban knew that the birth of a rhinoceros was important news.
“I thought to myself, ‘He should be famous,” Eban says. “Everyone should know who he is.’”
As Eban and the school group developed a relationship with the International Rhino Foundation and its former director Bill Konstant, they got the idea of having students create a book about Andatu.
With support from school staff and committee members pitching in, students created and completed One Special Rhino: The Story of Andatu (Beast Relief, 2014), in about six months. Among the 20 committee members, many are “creative—graphic designers, children’s book publishers, artists—so we have a lot of talent to draw on,” Eban says. Groups of fifth-grade students wrote and illustrated sections of the book during their classes. The profits from the book, available on Amazon, went to the International Rhino Foundation.
Since then, The Story of Andatu has raised $2,000. “It was such a success within the school community and was greeted so warmly by the large conservation community that we decided to do a book the following year about elephants,” Eban says.
Eban learned of a connection between a former Beast Relief committee member and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), so she reached out to see if WCS would partner in some way. “They were very enthusiastic,” Eban says. They decided to focus their second book on forest elephants because “we’d been teaching the kids about palm oil and deforestation,” says Eban. Then, “WCS put us in touch with WCS conservation scientist Andrea Turkalo,” who studies forest elephants.
The new book is called One Special Elephant: The Story of Penelope Petunia (Beast Relief, 2015), and profits—$360 so far—go to a WCS-controlled directed fund to support Turkalo’s research in Africa.
After Konstant reached out to primatologist Jane Goodall about a year ago, Goodall agreed to write introductions for One Special Elephant and future editions of One Special Rhino.
The project opened students’ eyes to the critical issues of endangerment around these animals. Briahna Charles, 10, is one of the student authors who worked on the project. “I used to think [elephants] were big and weird, but now that I know more about them, I like them,” she says. “I already knew that they were smart and friendly, but at first I didn’t know that the poachers killed them.”
“Maybe one of the poachers will buy that book and they’ll see that what they’re doing is a big problem and maybe they’ll stop,” Charles says.
WCS executive vice president John F. Calvelli, also director of the organization 96 Elephants, wrote the foreword to One Special Elephant. “The student authors succeed in revealing the hidden lives of forest elephants through the story of a single animal,” he said in a statement. “The book also helps bring attention to the plight of the African elephant. This is an amazing accomplishment for a group of any age.”
“In other schools they don’t do this,” says Charles, “so it’s cool [that we do].”
Eban hopes other schools follow the example of P.S. 107. “It’s totally replicable,” she says. “We put up a Beast Relief tool kit [on the school website] and basically said, ‘If you want to do this, here’s how.’ We’re saying, ‘Please, steal our ideas. Take them.’”
Carly Okyle is a writer at Entrepreneur.com. Her work has appeared in School Library Journal, Time.com, and YourTango.com, among other publications.