New store lends African touch to base of Highlands | AspenTimes.com

New store lends African touch to base of Highlands

Naomi Havlen
African art lines the windows of the Aspen Highlands store WildiZe. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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A zebra, a cheetah and a giraffe stand in the middle of Aspen Highlands Village – it’s not the beginning of a joke, it’s actually the entrance to Highlands’ WildiZe store.The shop, filled with arts, crafts and gifts from Africa, has been operating in Highlands Village since Dec. 9, raising eyebrows from casual passers-by. After all, it’s not every day one wanders through a Rocky Mountain ski village and ends up in another continent.WildiZe sells everything African, from woven baskets, bags and sandals, to textiles, beaded hangings and a variety of wooden carvings. On some weekend afternoons, a drum circle performs African rhythms on the plaza outside the store.

Three of the store’s biggest fans wandered through the doors one recent Saturday afternoon, fresh from ski school. Aspen resident Andy Hanson, who was manning the store one recent afternoon, said he sees the trio every week.”I like the store because of the cool things they have, and all of the money goes to Africa to help people,” said 8-year-old Ruby Lang. So far she has bought a sculpture of a bird and a wooden hippo. Her brother Joey, 6, said he’s become a big fan of Africa since “all the cool animals are there.”The shop is entirely nonprofit – a fund-raising effort by Woody Creek resident Eli Weiss, founder of the WildiZe Foundation. Weiss, a wildlife photographer in Africa for 10 years, decided there was something more she could do to protect wild animals.Although Weiss is in Africa until April 5 checking on various conservation projects, he shed a little light on what WildiZe is all about.

The reason Weiss is compelled to work on conservation efforts, Hanson said, is because of problems countries across Africa are encountering from poaching. People who are interested in elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns and “bushmeat” – meat from animals like impalas, giraffes and gazelles – continually set traps and snares in the bush, threatening many species in a number of national parks.”This is her baby,” Hanson said of Weiss’ commitment. “It’s what she’s going to spend her life doing.”The WildiZe Foundation sponsors a number of projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Republic of the Congo and a number of other countries. Hanson said Weiss solicits and funds project proposals from groups interested in creating awareness about sustainable conservation, which includes teaching communities on the continent how to live without threatening the wildlife in the area.”We want to help Africans build productive, sustainable relationships with wildlife,” Weiss says on a video about her organization. “When people don’t have the basic necessities of life, it’s difficult to discuss wildlife conservation with them.”

A number of WildiZe projects support local economies so that Africans will not feel they need to rely on poaching in order to survive. In an area of northern Kenya, for example, the foundation helped a group of women create guest houses, which brought in money to support the local tourism industry.Another project takes the snare wire that many animals become trapped in and recycles it into elaborate small sculptures of animals. Some of these sculptures are for sale in WildiZe.Although business is far from brisk, Hanson said rent at Highlands Village is reasonable because there is a need for tenants at the bottom of the mountain. He hopes word gets out about the WildiZe store; a drum circle with the possibility of African dancers Saturday, March 12, from 3 to 5 p.m., is designed to bring in business.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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