Benita Sen on an unusual project in London to help the endangered Asian elephant….

The first elephant known to have romped through London landed in England in 43 A.D. courtesy Roman Emperor Claudius. There have since been several elephantine guests but there's been nothing like the Elephant Parade conservation campaign that has let over 250 elephants loose across central London.

Elephant Parade is the brainchild of Elephant Family to focus attention on the “urgent crisis faced by the endangered Asian elephant”. But why the elephant? The tiger and other animals have drawn some attention but according to Elephant Family there is a “serious lack of investment and attention going into elephant conservation.” Elephant Family, the only UK charity dedicated exclusively to saving the Asian elephant from extinction in the wild, speaks from the experience of years.

About five lakhs of the larger African elephant remain. The Asian Elephant is down to an estimated 40,000, of which 27,000 are in India. The problems it faces are several. A migratory animal that needs space and resources, it is used to travelling long distances. Now, as human habitation spreads, it is being forced into tiny pockets with few safe corridors that are safe from poachers, from human habitation and from vehicular traffic. A safe passage also prevents debilitating in-breeding. As habitat becomes crowded and increasingly fragmented for both man and beast, conflict rises. WTI is also helping people relocate from elephant corridors. One such project is the Wayanad Elephant Corridor in Kerala from where families have been moved to Panavally.

The land under the Protected Area Network is not contiguous. With the spread of human habitation and infrastructure, the tracts are fast shrinking. As the Elephant Parade project sums it up, “The Asian elephant is simply running out of space and time.”

In the first phase of its National Elephant Corridor Project in 2001, Wildlife Trust of India and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), with financial support from US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), began identifying elephant corridors and came up with 88 passages. Of these, only about 22.8 per cent were free of major human settlements. The rest were neither safe for man nor beast.

Much-needed money

Besides raising awareness, it has also raised funds. There's a slew of corporate sponsors also. Over 150 artists ranging from Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla to Tommy Hilfiger pitched in with their talent and optimism.

The event was well-conceptualised. After standing around central London for weeks, the elephants were moved to Chelsea. There, thousands flocked to see them. If you couldn't afford to buy one of the behemoths, you could pick up miniatures and memorabilia. Or alternatively, shop online. One elephant, designed by Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, fetched £155,000 at an auction at Royal Hospital Chelsea. Some were auctioned online. Total collection? According to Elephant Family, a “staggering” £4 million. The money earmarked for India will largely go to re-construct elephant corridors with Wildlife Trust of India.

Wonderful news. But what are the majority of us, in the home of the Asian elephant, doing for the elephant that may be heading for a monumental environmental disaster? According to current estimates, the Asian elephant may not be found in the wild by 2050. Said Elephant Parade Patron Joanna Lumley, “Remember: elephants never forget. Let's make sure they will still be there to remember that we didn't turn our backs on them.”

Huge family, that!

Elephant Family took off because of travel writer and conservationist Mark Shand, brother of the Princess of Wales, Camilla Parker Bowles. His fondness for elephants goes back decades ever since he traversed 1,000 kilometres across India on an elephant named Tara. He authored Travels on my Elephant and filmed a BBC documentary, Queen of the Elephants, on the life of the first contemporary female mahout Parbati Barua. The unique Elephant Parade exhibition was organised by father and son Mike and Marc Spits for Elephant Family.