International Day Of Forests: Celebrating the wilderness

Here's how the Nilgiris tribals contribute towards elephant conservation

To raise funds for the conservation of pachyderms, tribal artisans in the Nilgiris use the invasive lantana weed to mould life-size sculptures that will be later auctioned

“I saw one just the other day,” says S Vishnu Varadhan. “He was standing on the grassland behind our house.” Vishnu is talking about an elephant.

A resident of Kargudi, a hamlet within the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris, he sees elephants almost every day, so much so that he knows their magnificent physique, the flap of their ears, bend of their trunks, and girth of their feet, like the back of his hand. The 25-year-old, who’s from the Betta Kurumba tribe, is etching the elephants he’s seen into life-sized ones made of lantana, an invasive weed.

He is part of a team of 25 tribal artisans from the Nilgiris that is making lantana elephants to raise funds for elephant conservation. One hundred of the elephants will be auctioned in the UK and US in 2021. The project is a collaborative effort of social enterprise The Real Elephant Collective and NGO Elephant Family. Vishnu and the team have been working at a workshop in Thorapalli, a small town in the hills, that has elephants, tigers, leopards, and spotted deer for neighbours.

Mammoth task It takes around 45 days to make a lantana elephant, each of which has a wild counterpart M Sathyamoorthy

Mammoth task It takes around 45 days to make a lantana elephant, each of which has a wild counterpart M Sathyamoorthy  

The journey

The lantana elephant’s journey begins as a photograph. “There’s a separate team for taking photos,” says R Manikandan, who assists Tarsh Thekaekara, an elephant researcher at The Shola Trust, who brings his valuable expertise to the project. “I’m here to help the team take their own photos and set camera traps. The idea is to make them self-sustained in terms of camera usage.” From the photo, the elephant’s dimensions are transferred onto paper, and then given 3D form using metal rods.

In it together

    Welder K Yogeswaran is the man behind the metal frame. “I use 6 mm and 10 mm rods for this,” he tells us, removing his dark goggles. He’s working on the frame of a baby elephant, giving it shape, one spark after another from his welding gun. Each elephant takes a month-and-a-half to make. “Once the frame is ready, we take over,” says AV Serappan, who’s from the Paniyar tribe. “I did carpentry and painting work before this project; we’ve been working here since December 2017,” adds the 48-year-old.

    It takes around 45 days to make a lantana elephant, each of which has a wild counterpart.

    It takes around 45 days to make a lantana elephant, each of which has a wild counterpart.   | Photo Credit: M_ Sathyamoorthy

    Lantana, an invasive weed that’s taking over our forests, was brought from MM Hills near Kollegal in Karnataka, for the project, according to Manikandan. For crafting them into elephants though, the shoots have to be boiled, the outer layer, peeled. This is when the women in the team, M Ramya, M Chitra, and B Lakshmi, come into the picture. “Boiling the shoots makes them flexible,” explains Ramya, who’s also from Kargudi. She too, like her fellow villagers, sees elephants every day. “We live right inside their territory, don’t we?”

    How to name it

    Vishnu says each lantana elephant has a real-life counterpart. He points to one labelled KK2. “Her name is Rani; she’s from Kapikad.” He knows her habits very well. “She’s an expert at sleeping while standing,” he chuckles. By her feet, baby elephant Messi is taking shape. Vishnu did odd jobs that came his way, such as being a guide with the Forest Department, before he joined the team. He says that even today, when he thinks of his job, he gets goosebumps. “I make elephants,” he says, shaking his head. “I make elephants.”

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    Printable version | May 29, 2020 8:43:01 PM |

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