The 100 strong herd are life-size and modelled on real wild elephants from the Nilgiri Hills in Southern India.
They have been created deep in the jungles of Tamil Nadu, by the Adivasi tribal communities who live in close proximity to their real-life counterparts.
The material they are made from, lantana camara, is an invasive weed whose removal from protected areas benefits wildlife.
Lantana is from South America, but planted around the world as hedge rows with beautiful flowers. But it is now a problem across the tropics, and one of the top ten invasive species in the world.
It’s problematic for lots of reasons:
The leaves and young stems contain toxins, which make it inedible for all native animals.
It puts out chemicals that suppress the growth of all other plants.
When cut, it coppices – quickly producing many new shoots that can grow up to six times faster than the mother plant, producing dense and impenetrable thickets.
Each adult plant can produce up to 12,000 seeds, which can germinate even 10 years later. Birds eat the fruit and spread the seeds widely, and it’s also able to grow from cuttings, or pieces of Lantana left on the ground.
It takes over the forest understory; destroys the grasses that are vital for animals, and all the other forest produce that indigenous communities depend on.
It reduces visibility, forcing forest department field staff and indigenous people to use the same paths, making it more dangerous to manage forests.
It drives animals out of forests and into local people’s croplands as they look for food, increasing negative human-wildlife interactions.
Forest departments and conservationists around the world have been trying to eradicate it for over a century, but it continues to spread. The only way to push it back is to get local people to use the plant for their livelihood – making furniture or sculptures, shredded stems as fuel briquettes or particle boards and multiple such initiatives.
In summer 2015, Ruth Ganesh and Tarsh Thekaekara met in the offices of the Elephant Family. Ideas brewed out of the melting pot and Ruth’s vision of 100 life-size elephants was united with Tarsh’s work with elephants and the invasive weed Lantana camara. Identical replicas of 100 wild elephants from the forests of South India ,made from lantana would enter cities across the world and raise funds for their wild counterparts.
The collaborators – The Shola Trust on Research and The Real Elephant Collective (TREC) on Creatives – saw the dream turned to reality, and a few months later the first prototype of a life-size lantana elephant took form in the Nilgiri Hills of South India.
For Shubhra, designer at The Real Elephant Collective, drawing large-scale is a way of life, and what is bigger than an elephant! Several life-size drawings and heated discussions between Shubhra and Tarsh, over how best to extrapolate an inner structure to capture the nuances of musculature and skeleton, resulted in detailed diagrams that would evolve over the construction of the entire herd.
Ranjini Janaki of the Bettakurumba tribe, with her double MA and her invaluable commitment has bridged the design and the production of every one of the 100 elephants, wearing several hats with panache.
The woody, tough and stubborn barks of the lantana plant simply melted and gave in to the expert artisanry/craftsmanship of Kutty, who made them flow over the metal elephant forms with a grace that brought out every sinew and fibre of the original elephants’ body.
In 2017 the artisan team grew to a 70-strong team of local indigenous people, Subhash Gautam inspired them everyday into a surprising commitment towards the 100-elephant herd. Beauty unfolded in their hands, complete with their inherent knowledge of elephant forms that only they could have brought, with their daily interactions with wild elephants around their homes and in their living history.
Ruth and Tarsh remained the incredible energy and vision that powered the TREC team frequently, through in-depth discussions under the stars and amidst forest sounds.
As the grand forms evolved, Shubhra hand-painted every eye for authenticity. Tariq, a film-maker by profession with an incredible eye for detail, came in to apply magical finishing touches – the setting of the eyes, the tail, nails, the gorgeous ears and the outer protective layer and all the inner mechanisms that have facilitated public exhibition and transport of the elephants.
Behind the creation of this herd, going with it and beyond it, are the stories of coexistence that the TREC team live with daily. Taking these stories to a world rife with strife where ever-extending boundaries have become a way of life and security, these elephants and the people who share space with them live lives of negotiation. This goes a long way to rekindling hope that communication and community offer a sustainable path to security and peace.
This exhibition is dedicated to the giant, generous and magnificent spirit of Mark Shand, co-founder of Elephant Family.
Tara inspired Mark Shand to start the Elephant Family, having fallen in love with her in India at the start of a journey which would change both of their lives. It was Tara who really taught Mark about elephants, about their emotions and temper and intelligence, and confirmed his absolute love for them. Through Tara, Mark learned that these majestic and beautiful animals were teetering on the brink of extinction and that the conservation-conscious western world seemed indifferent to their impending tragedy. Something had to be done and so Elephant Family was born.
Tara continues to live a happy life with conservationist Belinda Wright at Kipling Camp in central
Mark Shand was hard to categorise. To his critics he was a playboy with a cool hobby. To his friends, he was a passionate and informed activist, vigorously campaigning for a future for wild Asian elephants. As my first mentor in conservation nearly 20 years ago, he was both of these. I first joined Fauna & Flora international as an elephant volunteer, about to be sent to Vietnam. Mark drove me to London and talked about elephants non-stop with passion and empathy; ways in which many conservation biologists like me were trained to eschew. I was initially sceptical. What did this guy know about actually saving elephants?
It was only through 20 years of conservation in Asia and Africa that one realises just how important people like Mark have been and are and will be.
Mark not only put Asian Elephants back on the map when the world’s attention was on their African cousins, but create whole new constituencies for conservation that people like me could never hope to capture. Whether it was through his writing (see Travels on My Elephant), his speaking, or simply through his willingness to use his status for the good of elephant conservation, Mark had a quality which ran through all that he did. He had a deep charisma coupled with an even deeper passion. This combination was clear to anyone who met him, and he became a leading authority through his ability to convince people of the need to save elephants.
Wild elephants need charismatic ambassadors, tireless advocates and aggressive fighter. Mark was all of these and he is missed, as much by the magnificent animals he dedicated himself to as by his family and friends.
WildEast is the new voice for a region where wildlife lies shattered & fragmented by hard farming and a human blind eye; a region where the collapse in the state of nature is mirrored by a collapse in our understanding of its critical importance to the life systems on which we rely. We have become too human, WildEast is a reset of our regional identity, a ‘human nature recovery network’ the visual expression of which is our Map of Dreams, a place where everyone – churchyard schoolyard, backyard and farmyard have a stake in nature recovery.
WildEast is for people intent on moving on from an era of endless destruction to one of restoration, for people who want to live in not (just) visit a nature reserve, for people who care that their witness statement to a life on Earth will be that they acted NOW to help restore nature to sustainable abundance by pledging their 20% – the magic number that nature needs to thrive in our hard-working landscapes.
It is said we ‘live in the dreams of other men’ – men who having survived the catastrophe of global conflict, starvation and rationing, dreamt of Europe never going hungry again and built the architecture of a European agriculture and food production system that made this a reality. But it has come at a catastrophic cost to our native bio-diversity, farmed animal welfare and arguably human health and happiness.
WildEast wants to forge a new set of dreams for our children to live in – wilder, wetter, woodier landscapes connecting wild/sustainable farming systems, riverine landscapes meandering with water buffalo, (pelicans,) beavers and eagles, flowing through green towns watched over by white storks (and peregrines) and bursting with blossom & birdsong. WildEast dreams of a farming and food production economy that puts nature at the heart of every decision and a consumer that does so too.
In short WildEast is about the ‘normalisation of nature’ and to borrow from this extraordinary platform we are so lucky to share – its about CoExistence and compromise. If Indian farmers can find ways to allow elephants safe passage across their farms and Indian towns and cities integrate cars people & domestic animals in their streets – so can and so must we.
WE are WildEast – join the movement and help us – pledge by pledge, farm by farm, backyard by schoolyard by churchyard – restore 250,000 hectares to the wild
Hugh Somerleyton, Cofounder Wild East