In 2007, when local residents Liz Allen and Mark Fangue were on a buying trip for artifacts for their new business, Exotic World Gifts, they discovered an elephant camp in northern Thailand. They had no way of knowing then that this retreat for Asian elephants would bring them global media attention. But when an elephant ambled toward an easel, toting her paint box in her swinging trunk, then meticulously painted a picture of herself, the couple knew that this was no ordinary event.
The elephant was captured on Fangue’s high definition video camera and then shared on YouTube for the world to witness. “It blew my mind,” said Fangue as he recalled filming the painting pachyderm in a recent interview. “When you watch the video and you hear the person say, ‘Oh my God!’ that’s me.”
While it may seem hard to believe that elephants can be trained to paint meticulously crafted art works, with the aid of a mahout — a trainer who is closely bonded to the elephant—the seemingly impossible is mastered. And in partnership with the elephant camp in Thailand, Allen and Fangue now sell these paintings on their website, http://exoticworldgifts.com, to raise funds that directly support the Asian elephants who are rapidly becoming extinct.
Allen and Fangue, who met on Match.com three years ago, have since been swept up in the media spotlight.
“Within four days of posting the video it had 7.2 million viewers,” Fangue said. “It caused such a sensation that we appeared on Good Morning America, the Today Show, CNN, NBC, International BBC, National Geographic, Japanese radio, and Animal Planet.”
But some disputed the authenticity of the elephant video. When the National Geographic film crew visited with the couple in their Del Mar cottage, they got a private showing of Fangue’s video. “It is hard to believe that this video is real,” said Fangue, “but as they watched the original that was still in my camera they saw that it was genuine. So they flew us to Thailand with their film crew to validate our film and to document what turned out to be part of a feature program that’s now airing, called ‘Wild on Tape.’”
The video has since topped 10 million viewers with more than 18,000 comments and 1,400 blogs and has spring boarded Exotic World Gifts to a new level of visibility. On the couple’s return from Thailand in August, 2008, Animal Planet asked to do a show on them. “They flew their crew out to Rancho Santa Fe to interview us and do a program here. We had products at the J Gallery in Del Rayo Village Center and they filmed the show right there in Leigh Timmons’ showroom,” Fangue said.
In alignment with their support for sustainability for artisans in countries that include Thailand, Bali, Africa, Vietnam, Central America, South America, and India, Allen and Fangue are active members of the Fair Trade Federation and Free America, and participate in events that promote world peace, said Allen. “We promote earth-friendly practices and are helping to end poverty. We recently did an exhibit at Jane Goodall’s United Nations Peace Day, and Pierce Brosnan, who was very complimentary of our work, bought a necklace for his wife and he encouraged us to do more. Our business values are based on justice, dignity, empowerment, transparency and respect for people and the planet.”
Every purchase made from the website has an impact on the world. Purchases based on Fair Trade create demand for a fairer world by valuing not just a product but also the lives of the people and environment behind it, said Allen. This connectivity with people from third world countries is how Allen and Fangue aim to make a difference globally. When they met and first faced the question of what they each wanted to do with their lives it led them to look into their own hearts for the answer.
“When I met Liz, I thought that the best part of her was her heart.,” recalled Fangue. “But it wasn’t clear to me if she knew what a great heart she had. So I asked her, ‘What do you want?’ and for over two months she didn’t have an answer.”
“Nobody had ever asked me that question before, and I have never asked myself that question,” Allen said. “I really struggled with it, it’s an important question to answer. Then when Mark asked me, ‘How do you want to feel?’ this led me to get into my heart space.”
As Allen pondered a freedom to create anything that she wanted to the answer became clear: it was to help people. “It all started coming together, that was the big shift for me. I changed my life, I quit my corporate job, I sold my house, and I got rid of a lot of possessions in order to live my dream and my passion. Once I made that commitment and made the alignment to what I was supposed to be doing, everything just flowed.”
Within a few months of meeting, the couple took a trip to Belize. “We saw an artisan on the street, making beautiful products, and all of a sudden it dawned on us, ‘Oh my gosh we can help people out of their poverty by buying their products.’ It was definitely an ‘Ah ha’ moment,” said Allen. “Then when I ended up sitting next to a woman on the return flight who had an internet business model that we had been thinking about, it was like another sign that this could work.”
In December 2006 Allen sold her house in Orange County to raise funds to build the company, and in 2007 they started to develop their website. “It was an amazing year, I was still working full-time as a chief operations manager and Liz was transitioning out of her corporate work,” Fangue recalled.
Business has snowballed since then.
“In October we went to the United Nations for its International Compassion Ball and we volunteered to help put the gift bags together for the guests, we did that at the Penthouse at Trump Tower, so here we are thinking, ‘How did we get here?’ The following day we were in Times Square, at offices in the Conde Nast Tower, because Vogue Magazine wanted to interview us.”
Now Allen and Fangue’s life-changing decisions are empowering others. “We tell people our story and they get inspired. We have actually prepared and given two presentations, about how people can discover their passion and then live their passion,” Fangue said. And by teaming up with local nonprofits, they are able to contribute a percentage of revenue from their online sales to charity.
They have also partnered with the Earth Organization to help reach a wider audience. “Our passion is to provide sustainable income to people in developing countries; we have helped build two schools for Malawi, we are helping to provide clean water systems for villages, and we also love animals. But the underlying thing is that if the people are hurting the animals hurt. It’s almost pointless to try to help an animal if the people are suffering,” Allen said.
In closing Allen advised that every person should spend some time to figure out what they want to do in life by looking into their heart. “It’s your adventure, it’s your experience, and to spend your time trying to please others at the sacrifice of your own excitement doesn’t do anybody any good.”
To find out more about Exotic World Gifts visit them on line at http://www.exoticworldgifts.com Click on the link “Original Elephant Painting” to see Mark Fangue’s video recording of an elephant painting.