KOCHI: One night, just outside elephant conservationist Tarsh Thekaekara and his wife Shubhra Nayar’s house in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, a wild elephant stopped and reached out with its truck. An elephant made of lantana shrubs had been placed outside. But the wild elephant did not know that this was also an elephant. “It did not smell or sound like one,” says Tarsh. “Also, it does not normally see very well. So, it could not conclude it was an elephant.”
But on South Beach, at Fort Kochi, a few days ago, bibliophile Joe Cleetus, on his morning walk, had no problems in concluding it was a series of elephants although it would only be later that he would come to know they were made of lantana. He rushed back home to get his camera. Well-known DJ Anjali Uthup Kurian wrote in a Facebook post, again on a morning walk, “I nearly jumped out of my skin as I had no contacts or glasses on. But the energy they had…”
These lantana elephants are indeed eye-catching. And each is a replica of an actual elephant. “It varies from 3 feet, all calves are about three feet and the largest male is about 10-and-a-half feet tall,” says Tarsh.
These will be on display at Fort Kochi for a month. Thereafter, it will be taken to Bangalore, Delhi, the UK and USA. The aim is to auction them and get funds for the Asian Elephant Fund. The project is being implemented by the Real Elephant Collective, a Kochi-based social enterprise, established by Shubhra and Tarsh’s brother Tariq Thekaekara. They are in partnership with the UK-based NGO Elephant Family, which had funded the making of the first elephants. In total, there will be 100 elephants, out of which 60 have already been made.
The other collaborators include the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, The Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund-India and The Shola Trust, the last of which is run by Tarsh, Shubhra and Subhash Gautam.
Interestingly, there was a specific reason to use lantana. It is a South American shrub that was introduced by the British to India in 1809 as an ornamental garden shrub. It is very hardy and has bright orange flowers. The problem is that it has toxins in its leaves and so it cannot be eaten by animals. It puts out some chemicals that suppress the growth of other plants.
In Mudumalai and other neighbouring forests, about 14,000 hectares have been taken over by the lantana. “So, that’s as good as 30 per cent which is lost to the animals,” says Shubhra. “And it costs Rs 50,000 to clear one hectare. So the costs are prohibitive. The only way out is to create an industry out of lantana, like making paper, furniture, plywood and elephants, as we do.”
It was Shubhra who came up with the idea of making elephants out of lantana. A graduate of the National Institute of Design, she designed the prototype. This is now being used by 70 families belonging to the tribes of Soliga, Betta Kurumba and Panya.
The method is simple. A steel frame, in the shape of an elephant, is made -- the curved back, the long trunk and the thick legs. Then they cut the bushes. Thereafter, the sticks are boiled and shaved down. One layer of sticks is tied to the frame. Then a second layer is hammered in. “It’s a very slow process,” says Tarsh. “Six people take one-and-a-half months to make one elephant. Varnish has been imported from the UK to provide an effective waterproofing.”
As this work goes on, Tarsh spends his time doing a study of the elephants, the character, and their interaction with human beings, as well as their historical contributions. “Alexander The Great ’s unstoppable army, which was conquering the whole world was stopped by 80 war elephants that belonged to King Porus’ army. This happened during the ‘Battle of the Hydaspes’ (320 BC) which took place on the river Jhelum,” says Tarsh. “Elephants helped the British to win the Second World War. They were used extensively to build roads by the Allied forces against Japan.”
Interestingly, elephants have a matriarchal society. Older males move in and out of different herds. They are polygamous. Temperaments vary from animal to animal. The senior ones are stable and peaceful. On the other hand, the younger ones are feisty and charge at people.
A wild elephant will rarely sleep in the open. “They prefer to sleep in an undisturbed location,” says Tarsh. “This is usually at 2 a.m., deep inside the forest and they lie down for four hours.” But in Gudalur, the elephants do not regard people as a threat. So they sleep anywhere.
Interestingly, elephants recognise each other by smell. They have the Jacob’s organ, which can process chemical signals. “If an elephant puts out dung or urine, another elephant can put it in its mouth and tell which individual it is,” says Tarsh. “So they are aware of the movements of each other in a herd.”
The good news is that there is a healthy population of 8000 in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. “We have dedicated our lives to ensure that they continue to thrive,” says Tarsh.