Talking with A huge friend to African elephants


Name: Martin Perlmutter
Age: 66
City: Tiburon
Position: Elephant conservationist, president of Multisensory Interactive Learning Institute


You’ve spent your career working in interactive media. What are you doing now?

Martin Perlmutter: My nonprofit is helping underserved kids learn math without relying on words. Given that everything is “gamified” now, we have been building a game that will come out in the fall on the iPhone and Android that will allow kids to learn fractions with no words.

Martin Perlmutter

J.: Where did you grow up and what’s your Jewish background?

MP: I was raised in Queens, N.Y., where we attended the Laurelton Jewish Center, though once at Harvard, I became part of a “skeptics table” where we had regular lunches. I kept up my skepticism during and after college, but then I met my wife (Miki Raver), who is deeply spiritual and Jewish. She often officiates at Jewish holidays and I’m the “rebbetzin.” We belong to Kol Shofar.

J.: You and your wife volunteered in India in 2012 with American Jewish World Service. What did you do there?

MP: We were assigned to two different social justice organizations, I was sent to Drishti, a communications and media training organization, and with them, I produced videos, built their social media presence and helped them create a handbook for citizen journalism. I’m still in touch with them on a daily basis. We were in Ahmedabad, which was the city where Gandhi based himself. Every day, we’d look across the river at his ashram.

J.: When did you first take up the cause of protecting African elephants from being poached for their ivory?

MP: It came upon me like a jungle fever or a virus. One morning while in India, I woke up and said to Miki, “This is what I gotta do.” We were on the west coast of the river, right across from the Arabian Sea, and I think I picked up an SOS from the east coast of Africa; that’s the only way I can explain it.

When I got home, I started researching and found an annual report by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. I got in touch with them, saying I wanted to help, and they had been thinking about doing something creative to reduce the demand for ivory. It’s a real challenge, because how do we educate Chinese consumers and shut down the demand, since Facebook and Twitter don’t go into China? How do you get the message across there? We started making wordless high impact visual videos saying don’t turn elephants into chopsticks, and volunteers helped us get them onto the Chinese equivalents of Twitter and YouTube, but we have no idea of the reach or impact. Ivory is selling for upwards of $2,000 a kilogram.

Seventy percent of Chinese people believe that elephants drop their tusks like baby teeth and grow new ones.  I want to make a spot that will make people realize that’s not true, with the sound of chainsaws in the background; then I want to make one for the U.S. We’re the No. 2 market for ivory.

J.: Were you always active in animal rights?

MP: No. African elephants are the iconic elephants. In Asia, the rule is revere and enslave; in Africa it’s ignore and kill. A male is twice as tall as we are, and can weigh up to 14,000 pounds. Their tusks can weigh over 100 pounds apiece. Poachers are now killing adolescents, to get their pencil tusks, or they kill babies, because if you do that, you’ll attract the mommy, and then they’ll machine-gun the mommy.

How can people get involved?

MP: One is write to the Tanzanian government and tell them you’re canceling your safari. I’m also launching, which will list resources. Think of fostering an elephant for a year; you can give that as a bar mitzvah gift. I’m waiting for a reverse SOS saying, “We’re safe now,” so I can go back to educating kids. I’m praying for it.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."