Indigenous environmental art 

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 indigenous 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.  

Photo: Tariq Thekaekara

Working under the creative direction of The Real Elephant Collective, a community of 70 Adivasi artists and wildlife conservationists have spent the past five years recreating every elephant they live alongside, in intricately detailed sculptural form.

Shubhra Nayar is a co-founder and designer at The Real Elephant Collective, with a passion for theatre design and life-size puppetry. She holds a degree in Textile Design from the National Institute of Design in India, and an MA in Theatre Design from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, in the UK. Shubhra’s experience with designing for performance and larger-than-life-puppets, combined with anatomically perfect sketches have formed the basis of each elephant sculpture in the CoExistence exhibition.

Ruth Ganesh is a creative conservationist and has conceptualised the CoExistence campaign in its entirety. Her speciality is imagining and delivering major public art events which have raised more than £15 million for conservation so far. She is a member of the Real Elephant Collective, trustee of The British Asian Trust and Elephant Family, and co-founder of the new environmental arts body – Platform Earth.

Dr Tarsh Thekaekara is a conservationist-researcher whose work has formed the backbone of the Coexistence project. He is based in the Nilgiri Hills, and works on promoting more human inclusive models of nature conservation. He holds a PhD on Human-Elephant Coexistence, and has been working with Lantana and indigenous communities for the last 15 years. He also holds an MSc in Biodiversity, and Conservation and Management from the University of Oxford, is a trustee of The Shola Trust, an Adjunct Fellow at Dakshin Foundation, and member of The Real Elephant Collective.

The material 

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. 

The creation story 

by Shubhra Nayar, Lead Creative at The Real Elephant Collective

Photo: Varsha Yeshwant Kumar


George Butler

George Butler is an award-winning reportage illustrator focusing on current affairs. His drawings, predominantly for the British press, have taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Tajikistan and West Africa. However, it was the people he met during the war in Syria that captured his imagination, and his heart. He started the Hands Up Foundation along with three like-minded friends, until date the organisation has raised in excess of £5 million to support Syrian doctors and teachers.

He is an SDG Goalkeeper, chosen by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a TEDX Speaker. George’s work resides in the National Archive at the V&A. His focus now is the natural world. In addition to the illustrations created for CoExistence, George has produced an exhibition tracking human-wildlife coexistence around the world to run alongside the campaign.