The Real Elephant Collective
& The Elephant Family
Text written in conversation with Shubhra Nayar, designer and co-founder of The Real Elephant Collective, regarding the processes and ideas behind the Lantana Elephants
The Real Elephant Collective is a not-for-profit, socio-environmental enterprise based in Gudalur, a town in the Nilgiris hills, Tamil Nadu, India. For the last four years, The Collective have been working on the Lantana Elephant project, part of the Co-Existence campaign conducted in partnership with UK conservation NGO, Elephant Family.
The project has created elephants made from lantana camara, a species invasive to India. Lantana was brought as an ornamental plant by British colonists in the early 19th century but has now gone feral. Lantana thrives in forests affected by hundreds of years of colonial and post-colonial timber exploitation and forest modernisation, and now acts as a significant threat to elephant ecologies. Unruly lantana growth is a monstrous expression of the Plantationocene (see this essay on Lantana, plantations, and elephants by Münster, 2020)
The Elephant Family envisioned a grand travelling installation, a huge herd of life-size Lantana Elephants migrating across several continents to raise awareness about the current threats facing elephants and raise funds for conservation. If you are in London sometime before May 2021, you will have the opportunity to visit and experience some of this now hundred-strong herd as they range through and inhabit various Royal Parks.
While Lantana Elephants have received significant news coverage - indeed they are spectacular and attention-grabbing like their real-life counterparts - there are other ideas and processes behind their development worth foregrounding, and which are relevant to the themes of this conference and the problem of human-elephant entanglement
Some of the Lantana Elephants stand up to 10 feet at the shoulder and, to a degree, recreate the impression of being in the presence of these giants. The dried and treated lantana stalks lend the models an organic quality and invite tactile engagement. The eyes are somewhat larger than regular elephant eyes, and more forward-facing, a subtle anthropomorphic modification that The Real Elephant Collective team has found helpful in facilitating visitor connection.
The Lantana elephants are not only life-size, but also modelled on real-life elephants who range in Gudalur. An ongoing documentation and tracking research of elephant movement in the area by The Shola Trust, a partner NGO, has allowed The Collective’s designers to create portraits of these nonhumans (see this video for the Gudalur Elephant Monitoring Project). Some of these elephants are familiar only to conservation groups, others are regular travellers through certain tea gardens, while a few individuals are wildly famous among the public, celebrities with their own name and admired personalities (such as the Nilgiris local hero, Nadodi Ganesan).
The Lantana Elephants have histories and biographies. The Real Elephant Collective Team wrote detailed backgrounds for some of these individuals to frame how visitors might encounter them, and to imagine these beings in more nuanced ways than at the generalised level of species. Even some of the herds are presented as expressing varying social organisations and temperaments. While it is not unusual for BBC documentaries to use personality to make wildlife engaging, the stories of Lantana elephants are not merely a narrative device. They are characterisations that capture the idiosyncrasies of local bulls and herds who have skilfully and adaptively learnt to navigate and live in an anthropogenic landscape. They are individuals that have become known through repeated observation and interaction, portraits of elephants only possible from the intimate familiarity that comes with sharing place with them. Lantana elephants are representations of more-than-human persons (Locke, 2014) that need to be understood within the context of their ecological, social, and inter-personal relationships with humans at Gudalur.
Despite the static nature of these model elephants, visitors frequently comment on the uncanny sense of movement evoked by the body. This is surprising given the restrictive material nature of skeletons made from iron and an epidermal layer crafted from dried lantana. Depictions of action are subtle: characteristic elephantine tilt of the head, curl of the trunk, or a raised back leg. The most powerful sense of animacy emerges not from the body positions, but from the “flow of the sticks” - the fluid lantana lines that give form to the elephant’s body.
Learning to work with and exploit the possibilities of lantana in this manner was a process of skilled craftsmanship that developed overtime as more elephants were made. Coordinating with the designers who drafted models of each animal are a group of men and women who labour to weave together iron and wood and give form to the Lantana Elephants. These members of the Real Elephant Collective are adivasi and from the Kurumba and Paniya communities – peoples indigenous to the Niligiris. Many of these persons come from families and villages whose livelihoods are in close relation with forest landscapes and their nonhuman inhabitants, including elephants (for example, see Bird-David, 1999)
To understand how the Lantana Elephants are imbued with animacy that seems to exceed the limits of its static materials, requires grasping the role of the indigenous craftsmen. Making elephants is a creative process, these artists do not simply follow a design but are invested in bringing forth an individual with a unique character. The flow of the sticks seems to capture the lines and musculature of the elephantine body and reveals a familiarity with how these animals look, feel, and move. The capacity to capture elephants in this way is a talent that possibly results from the fact that these indigenous peoples have a history of living in proximity to wild elephants.
The Connection and Tension of Co-existence
Through their sheer size, power, and intelligence, wild elephants can be potentially dangerous. Being in the presence of elephants requires people to take care, they affect and transform how people use space. Walking among the herds of lantana giants in the royal parks of London might give some sense of the formidable nonhuman agency that people who live near elephants are subject to. (Although, the static nature of the models which afford touching and Instagram photos is more akin to posing with working, tourist elephants than interacting with wild ones – something worth reflecting on, considering this confusion is a dangerous mistake made by some people).
Perhaps it seems unreal that full size replicas of these archetypal wild beings have been transplanted into spaces like London, with small herds temporarily co-opting its urban parks. However, this overlap of human and nonhuman worlds is not impossible – the installation calls attention to the reality that people and elephants do live together in such a manner. In places like Gudalur, elephants will regularly roam among tea gardens and densely populated human habitat, and by doing so interrupt how people use that space. This kind of interspecies co-inhabitance with such a formidable being are mundane occurrences for many in India.
If there was a soundtrack that accompanied this travelling installation of Gudalur elephants in the UK, it might not necessarily be the sensual sounds of the nonhuman jungle – this is the fantasy of the untouched Wild. Instead, there would be elephant rumbles accompanied by the sounds of people, whether it is the excited chatter of observing crowds and the artificial clicks of mobile phone cameras, or the anxious shouts of farmers attempting to frighten elephants away from agricultural plots. Sharing space with such an animal can be a tense and exciting encounter, but as we found with the story of celebrity Ganesan, some elephants and people have learnt to tolerate and live passively alongside each other.
The agency of elephants to transform human inhabitance of shared space is a product not only of their size but of their radiating charisma, a relational quality and affective atmosphere that attracts (or sometimes repels) the person when in their presence (see Lorimer here). In Gudalur, despite seeing elephants on a regular basis, people are still captivated by the magnetic field and agency of these giants. The same farmer who is intensely frustrated with elephants eating their crops will also happily engross themselves for several hours watching elephants feed, play, or give birth. Elephants interrupt life in negative and positive ways. Co-existence is multi-faceted and complicated. It can be violent and caring, accommodating or in conflict. For visitors to the Lantana elephant installation in Kerala, India, the life-size models have the capacity to evoke a variety of stories, feelings, and memories of encounters with elephants.
The Lantana models are possessed by some of that charismatic elephantine power, and reveal how many humans around the world share a connection with these nonhumans. It is this seemingly universal charisma of elephants that enables their "cosmopolitan" quality – they are beings who can “forge connections across difference” (Barua, 2013). Elephant bodies are enacted in diverse ways, and their meaning and form can vary depending upon the cultural context through which they travel. Audiences in the UK perceive wild elephants through colonial stories of exotic Otherness and Wild places, stories through which they approach and are charmed the Lantana installation. It is through this connection, that these models can “[generate] concerns about conservation” (ibid, 8) and reconfigure relations with animals, people, and landscapes in distant places (Barua's paper actually explores Elephant Family's prior migrating installation of artistic elephants, Elephant Parade)
On another level, perhaps the Lantana Elephants also asks more of its British audience than their conservation awareness, concern, and funds. It also asks people to recognise and inherit the problematic histories of colonisation and invasive species that connect the society and ecology of India and England. Colonial histories of lantana occur alongside forest cleared for tea gardens and teak plantations to build tea chests, all past environmental modifications which are deeply implicated in the current endangered status of the Asian elephant and the emergence of what has been typically called "human-elephant conflict".
The problems of "conflict" cannot be solely located at the margins of society, at the boundary of forest and field, at the embodied juncture of rural farmer and elepant. There are broader social forces that have stuctured and continue to make co-existence with elephants in these spaces difficult. The travelling Lantana Elephant installation might also present an opportunity for people who live in urban centres of power to reflect on their troubling and complicated interconnection with these distant places. Hopefully, this understanding might help them better respond to the problems that Asian elephants - and the humans they live alongside - are currently facing.