South India’s famous Lantana elephants to raise their trunks for conservation funds

By Saraswathy NagarajanonAug. 18, 2021in Environment and Ecology
The Lantana elephants   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Having travelled from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala to the United Kingdom, the Lantana elephants have been auctioned to raise funds for conservation, with the challenge in mind to teach masses on how to co-exist with animals and reduce man-animal confrontations

Even as a herd of wandering elephants in China has the world glued to their adventures, another herd of elephants made their way to the UK from Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, Male Mahadeswara Hills in Karnataka and Wayanad in Kerala. The sculptures of Indian elephants were made of Lantana weed by indigenous communities in the hills.

“The exhibition was held to promote the idea of coexistence, and change the way we think about conservation — from locking up nature in distant places to dwelling with nature around us,” says elephant conservationist Tarsh Thekaekara, who works with The Shola Trust, a non-profit, charitable trust involved in Nature conservation in the Nilgiris.

Lantana camara, one of the 10 most invasive weeds in the world, the removal of which is highly beneficial to forests, was used to make the life-size elephants. The lantana elephants reached London in early May and were on display from June 1 to July 23 in public places, parks and streets in London.

“In addition to the elephants of different sizes, there were other smaller exhibits that showed how the elephants were made. The sculptures were made for a series of global exhibitions titled ‘Coexistence,’ which celebrates the way people in India coexist with wild animals,” he explains.

A dominated discourse

The elephant conservationist does not feel that cases of man-animal encounters in villages bordering forests are a primary problem. He says elephants are expanding their territory and entering places like Madikeri town in Coorg, Electronic City on the outskirts of Bengaluru etc. Moreover, they have moved into and recolonised Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. “We have to balance the needs of elephants and people. Currently the discourse is dominated too much by urban animal rights activists.”

He maintains that it is “we urbanites who cause environmental destruction” although we tend to point fingers at tribals and local farmers who struggle to protect their crops and lives. “Coexistence is the future of conservation. At present, the focus is not always on elephants in intact forests and poaching. It is about human-elephant interaction!”

According to him, approximately 500 people are killed by elephants in India every year. So the challenge is to protect people from elephants and the panchyderm from people; to prevent jumbos from getting killed on railway lines, highways and electric fences. He asserts that the need of the hour is a policy to manage elephants that enter cities and to reduce man-animal confrontations. According to Tarsh, there is a possibility that within five years, elephants could cross the river and amble into Nedumbassery airport in Kochi.

The conservationist advocates using technology to minimise the impact that people and animals have on each other. “Technology can be used to make early warning systems to detect elephant crossing the tracks,” he says.

Loss of habitat, emphasises Tarsh, is not the primary problem in South India. “It is a problem in central India, but in South India, the forests are better protected and there has been a net forest gain over the last decade. Here, forest quality is the issue, where unpalatable plants like lantana are taking over.”

Connections made

The idea of an exhibition of lantana elephants was born in 2015 when Ruth Ganesh and Tarsh met. Ruth is the principal trustee of Elephant Family, a UK-based NGO dedicated to protecting Asian elephants. The plan was to make replicas of 100 wild elephants in South India, exhibit them in cities across the world and raise funds for coexistence.

Hazel with an elephant sculpture made of Lantana weed on exhibition in the UK   | Photo Credit: Claudia Gray

The Shola Trust on Research and The Real Elephant Collective (TREC) on Creatives turned the idea into reality. Tarsh says that each sculpture is based on a real wild elephant that was profiled as part of the Gudalur Elephant Monitoring project by The Shola Trust and the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.

Seventy-five tribal artisans have been working on the elephants for close to five years, thus gaining a sustainable alternative livelihood as well.

At the end of the exhibition, the elephants were auctioned to raise funds for conservation, which is supported by the Coexistence Consortium, which comprise a range of NGOs such as WWF-India, WCS-India, ANCF etc. and experts from around the world.

Tarsh says the response in the UK has been extremely good. “We choose it because our partner — Ruth — is based there. They have managed to auction almost all the elephants, and have raised over one million pounds for conservation,” adds Tarsh.

First published by The Hindu on 14 Aug. 2021

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