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ALUN RHYS GRIFFITHS

The Elephant Parade: a Story of Art, Culture and Conservation

INTRODUCTION

The Elephant Parade is a worldwide phenomenon. A global organisation which successfully marries together artistic expression with the worthwhile cause of nature conservation - and all in a spirit of fun and good humour. It is a coming together of artistic talent to create a collection of elephant sculptures, all individually crafted and painted as each artist thinks fit. And yet it is also a constantly changing and evolving collection as these sculptures are created, exhibited, and then sold off for conservation charities, to be replaced by new elephant models for the next leg of an ongoing world tour. Since its inauguration in 2006, tens of millions of people have seen the parade in dozens of different countries and in so doing, have contributed to this conservation cause. And in January 2016 it was the turn of the author of this article to witness the parade.

This then is the story of the Elephant Parade, how it came into being, its aims, and what it is like to experience the parade on one of its international stopovers around the world - Lumpini Park in Bangkok, Thailand.

The day (and night) when the elephants came to town. The Elephant Parade in Bangkok

A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

The aricle is written as a result of the author's own experience of the Elephant Parade on the occasion of its arrival in Thailand. It features my photographs of the parade in January 2016 with acknowledgements of the sculptors and artists responsible for each of the elephants in the exhibit that I've photographed. Several of the images show both the elephant in its entirety, and also the details of the artwork which transforms the models into objects of originality and beauty.

* This article was written in 2016 with little need for amendment since then. However, there is an update (2019) added after the section which focuses on the exhibitions, and I will endeavour to ensure that this is regularly amended with the latest news each year so that readers are aware of the continued progress of the Elephant Parade. Thanks.

'TUSK' - by Nirut Sirijanya

'Tusk' is an elephant model created to represent the need for conservation. Together with habitat destruction, the ivory trade for elephant tusks is the main issue in the conservation of elephants.The model features painted elephant designs

THE ELEPHANT PARADE

The Elephant Parade had its origins back in 2006 when Dutch entrepreneur Marc Spits was holidaying in Chiang Mai, a city in the far northwest of Thailand. Whilst there he visited a unique elephant sanctury and hospital, which cared for sick, injured and maltreated animals - and the plight of the creatures who lived there moved him greatly. One animal in particular touched his heart - a badly injured baby elephant with only three legs, and a prosthetic limb replacing the fourth. Marc resolved there and then to do something to help with the care of this sad little elephant, and with the upkeep of all the other inhabitants of the hospital. Back home, he teamed up with his son who had a background in marketing, and between them Marc and Mike Spits launched the concept of the Elephant Parade. They began creating a series of polyester resin model elephants, and then invited a host of artists to design and decorate one each. The models would be approximately 1.5 m high and 1.8 m long, life sized statues - baby elephant life-sized that is. Each of the sculptures would weigh about 65 kgs.

An exhibition was put together and first held in the Dutch city of Rotterdam in 2007. It featured 50 elephants painted by local Dutch artists and also Thai artists, and after the event, these were auctioned off raising what seemed at the time like an astonishing €250,000. But the success of this show led to a further exhibit with new elephant models in the Belgian city of Antwerp in 2008, and that raised nearly twice as much. Then it was back to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in 2009 where the number of elephants put on show was almost doubled to 100. The project was really taking off.

And the successful formula has been maintained. 'Elephant Parade' is described as a 'social enterprise' rather than a charity, because it doesn't rely on donations, but rather on the sale or auctioning of its merchandise. Some models are pre-sold, but after each exhibit the rest go into charity auctions held by reputable auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's, and a whole new collection is created for the next exhibit in the next city, each one unique and individual to the artist who designs it.

 

Since the Parade began in 2007 more than 1000 elephants have been created, and at least 800 artists have participated in creating them. In addition to the original 'life-size' models, sale of limited edition replicas and other souvenir products associated with the elephants also brings in a substantial sum of money. A percentage of the net profits goes to animal welfare and conservation projects, originally through 'The Asian Elephant Foundation', and now through the Elephant Parade's official partner, the conservation charity 'Elephant Family', which uses the money to protect and care for the Asian elephant in a variety of different ways.

'PINK PRINCESS' - by Gavin Fifield

One of the brightest and shiniest of the sculptures

Famous and influential supporters of the Elephant Parade include Sir Richard Branson, the Duchess of York, Evelyn de Rothschild, Goldie Hawn, Michael Palin, Ricky Gervais and Prince Henrik of Denmark and many others. And celebrities have not only endorsed the project, but have even been involved in the design of some of the artwork too.

'JOY TO THE WORLD' - by Kai Varayut

Artist Kai Varayut wanted in his creation to bring pleasure and happiness to adults and children alike. A pink elephant in a tutu cannot really fail can it?

'CHANG' - by Phet Wiriya

Phet Wiriya says: '(each) elephant has its own great ego and identity'. His elephant features a multitude of white elephants designs on a red background

'DHEVA TONG' - by Watchira Srichan

Devas (Dhevas) are demi-God figures in Hindu and Buddhist iconography

THE EXHIBITIONS

Shortly after those early shows in the Netherlands and Belgium, the Elephant Parade arrived in the UK and the City of London in 2010. No fewer than 250 models were put on display, and in a celebrity-attended auction in June 2010, £4 million ($7,150,000) was raised. The highest bid for a single piece was for a model designed by Jack Vettriano. It fetched £155,000 ($252,600).

The elephants have since rolled into many cities around the world, and on four different continents, generating huge awareness of the need to conserve elephants and their natural habitats. Bergen in Norway received them, also in 2010, and then two more locations in the Netherlands, and in Copenhagen, Milan and Singapore in 2011. After this Belgium was again the showcase for the Parade followed by Germany and Luxembourg in 2013. 2013 would also herald the first arrival of the elephants in the Americas when California hosted the Parade. At the same time, a large scale assault on the UK was underway! Between the summer of 2013 and the summer of 2014, a year-long tour of 14 cities was carried out.

The Netherlands is the Elephant Parade's headquarters in Europe, but its spiritual home must be Asia, and from 2014, Hong Kong, Suzhou in China, and Bangkok in Thailand all played host. In between times, France has also received the elephants, and South America had its first visitation with an event in Florinopolis in Brazil. The Parade has certainly come a long way, but there is still so much of the world awaiting the show.

UPDATE


Since this article was written in 2016, the Elephant Parade has also visited Taiwan later in 2016 and Dehli and Mumbai in India in 2018. And there have been further visits to London, to Shanghai in China, to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and to Chiang Mai in Thailand.

A gathering of the elephants in Lumpini Park, Bangkok

BANGKOK - THE DAY THE ELEPHANTS CAME TO TOWN

Elephants are well known in the nation of Thailand. A national symbol, the elephant can be seen on posters and statues, and in cultural shows. Riding an elephant is one of the experiences many tourists look forward to when on a visit to Thailand. They are a much reasured species with a place in Thai religion and mythology, in history and in modern day life. The role of this country in the origins of the Elephant Parade has already been referred to, and will be again towards the end of this article.

One can expect to see some grey elephants in Thailand - both real and in artistic interpretation. But what about pink elephants? Or white elephants? Or green, red, blue, yellow and multicoloured elephants? That's exactly what was on show in Lumpini Park, Bangkok when the Elephant Parade came to town. The pictures here show just a small part of that Parade, and in just one location, as will be explained in the next section.

'KHAO SUAY' - by Millie Young

Behind 'Khao Suay', the Bangkok City skyscrapers rise above the trees

'ROYAL ELEPHANT GOLD' - by Chakrit Choochalerm

'Royal Elephant Gold' with its imposing regal headdress, had pride of place at the front of the Lumpini Park parade as a 'symbol of auspiciousness and intelligence'

'DISCO DISCO' - by Santi Takaew

Perhaps not as regal as 'Royal Elephant Gold' illustrated above but this mirrored silver 'disco' elephant is just as striking

THE PARADE IN BANGKOK

It was late in 2015 the elephants came to Thailand and to the capital city of Bangkok. 88 models were created. The first stop was the luxury shopping mall of Siam Paragon where the elephants went on display between the 1st and 20th December. Then the Parade moved on to the night market and entertainment centre of Asiatique for another month. And then on 18th of January the show arrived in the leafy green Lumpini Park in East Bangkok for ten more days. It was here in Lumpini Park that the author came across the elephants on 26th January 2016. I had not been aware of their presence in Bangkok, so it was pure coincidence that I was visiting the park on that day.

As soon as I entered I saw a line of elephants along one of the main pathways - almost literally a parade led by the 'Royal Elephant Gold' statue depicted earlier. Another collection of statues was to be found a short distance away. At the time I knew very little about the exhibits, but the sight of all these elephant sculptures certainly kindled an interest.

Only a fraction of the 88 sculptures were on display in Lumpini Park, and several of the most extraordinary designs - notably some of the less conventionally posed elephants were not seen. These included the very original 'Sharkaphant' and 'Sheepafant' (shark and woolly sheep / elephant hybrid models) and even one which looked like the iconic Bangkok three-wheeler taxi, the 'Tuk-tuk'. Still, more than enough were on show to make it a worthwhile exhibit. As is typical of the Elephant Parade, most of the artists involved were local individuals or local art studio groups, and therefore many of the elephants - like 'Tuk-tuk' - carried a distinctly Bangkokian flavour, with the depiction of local scenes, Buddhist iconography, and such like.

Further details on the artwork will be given on this page, but there is a depiction of all the elephants in the Bangkok Parade at the local Bangkok Parade Website.

'LITTLE JAIDEE' - by Pinyada Ratanasungk

Little Jaidee carries a lighthearted montage of cartoons in affectionate homage to Bangkok, by one of the city's own artists. Bangkok is often abbreviated to 'BKK'

THE ARTWORK

So far in this article, we have looked at the Elephant Parade exhibitions. But you have to have something worth exhibiting, and one of the big appeals of the Elephant Parade is undoubtedly the artwork which is created on the bodies of the elephants. Many of the sculptures are different in posturem walking, squatting or even playfully gamboling - dictated by the visions of their artists - but all are different in their artwork, as can be seen here.

Whilst some are uniform in colour and pattern, others feature quite intricate designs and scenes which could be just as easily be hung on a wall, but which for the purposes of this exhibit, happen to be painted on an elephant-shaped canvas.

In this section therefore, the emphasis is not on the whole elephant, but rather on the detail, and all the photos below show in close-up the detail of the artwork which appears on the body. Much of it is abstract patterning, some of it is symbolic or deeply cultural to the nation where the parade takes place, and some of it is just attractively realistic or impressionistic imagery. It's all down to the personal whims and motivations of the artists who create the work. And I'm sure anyone who is familiar with the work of the artists involved will be able to recognise their trademark styles.

'AM'S ASIAN FEAST' - by Emma Slora Breene

One of the most artistic exhibits

'THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS' - by Prajjwal Choudhury

Part of the detail from many fragmented images on an elephant, the design of which is intended to show nature, and how mankind is growing apart from nature

DETAILS FROM THE ELEPHANT ARTWORK

PEACOCK SEASONS - by Rungtiwa Shianglum

A design by an artist resident in Chiang Mai, reflecting the natural beauty brought about by the changes in the seasons, and featuring exquisite images of peacocks

THE CONSERVATION MESSAGE

The plight of the world's elephants is the motivation for the Elephant Parade. African elephants are in decline - at least 30,000 are killed each year, and the main cause of this is poaching for ivory. But it is the Asian elelphant which is the primary current concern of the Parade. Where once there were many hundreds of thousands, there are now considerably less than 50,000 left. Numbers have declined drastically over the last 100 years - by more than 70% in direct correlation to a reduction of 95% in the size of their natural habitat. It has been suggested that if this sad rate of decline continues, elephants may well become extinct in the wild within about 30 years.

There are other issues too - when wild or domesticated elephants come into contact with humans, accidents and deliberate maltreatment take their toll. Elephants suffer.

But there is good work being done throughout Asia, by different teams and charities, many of which have been supported by funds received from the Elephant Parade. These include sancturies offering veterinary treatment for working elephants in Myanmar, Laos and Sumatran Indonesia, rescue and translocation of elephants who come into conflict with plantation owners in Malaysia, and education and awareness campaigns in India and Cambodia. And more than 20,000 trees have been planted in Western Thailand assisted by funding from the Elephant Parade and by the 'Elephant Family' charity, through which it donates money to organisations such as 'The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation'. In total, more than 150 projects in 13 countries have been supported.

Just one of those projects is the 'Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital', in Chiang Mai, and this institution - and its most famous resident - are the subject of the next section.

'SUVARNAPLAI' - by Wachira Sijan / 'PHANDA' - by Note Dudesweet

'SuvarnaPlai' combines two Thai words meaning 'pure gold' and 'elephant'. 'Phanda' refers to the worldwide love affair with pandas, which even afflicts Thailand, whilst Thailand's own emblem - the elephant - may seem neglected by comparison

THE STORY OF MOSHA

It is indeed entirely appropriate that the Elephant Parade should have come to Thailand in 2015-2016. Not only is the elephant a Thai national emblem, but the nation is also home to an elephant called Mosha. And Mosha and the Elephant Parade are now inextricably linked.

Earlier in this article I related how Marc Spits - founder of the Elephant Parade - had visited an elephant hospital near Chiang Mai in northwestern Thailand, and how, when he was there, he was moved by the plight of a three-legged baby elephant. Well, that elephant was Mosha.

The Lampang Hospital is run by an organisation called the 'Friends of the Asian Elephant' and it was the world's first elephant hospital when it was founded in 1993 by Soraida Salwala. Soraida remains its Director General, and since 1993, this institution and sanctury has treated nearly 4,000 sick or injured elephants, and those which have been the victims of human cruelty. Just one of those elephants is Mosha. At 7 months old, Mosha lost her right front leg after stepping on a landmine on the Thai-Borneo border, and she became the first elephant ever to be fitted with a prosthesis. Today, ten years later, she is still a resident at the hospital, and has to receive a new leg every year, which she then has to get used to walking with once again.

'WE LOVE MOSHA BANGKOK' - by Thiti Suwan

Baby Mosha is undoubtedly the most important elephant in the parade - the only one to feature in all parades in all cities, and the inspiration behind the entire enterprise. The story of the real-life Mosha is revealed on this page.

Marc and his son Mike founded the Elephant Parade after that visit and the inspirational sight of Mosha the three-legged elephant. And in each reincarnation of the Elephant Parade since then, a model of Baby Mosha has been redesigned with a representation of the host city on her artifical leg - the one constant in an ever changing parade. And that perhaps now makes Mosha the most famous elephant in the world.

The Lampang Hospital still receives regular donations from the 'Elephant Family' charity and from the Elephant Parade. And the crucial importance of the funds raised well-recognised by the hospital and its limited staff of less than 20. Soraida Salwala has said 'Without Elephant Parade, I don't think our elephants would survive.'

This Video

This video shows the real life Mosha and the work of 'The Friends of the Asian Elephant' Hospital at Lampang. The video is presented by artist Chris Chun who produced elephant models for parades in the UK and America. He also created the 'Sheepafant' sculpture for the Bangkok Parade, unfortunately not photographed by the author, but mentioned elsewhere in this article. Chris Chun's web page.

THOUGHTS IN CONCLUSION

For the author of this article, a visit to Lumpini Park is a regular occurance when in the City of Bangkok. But this visit on 26th January 2016 was made extra special by the surprise encounter with the temporary residents of the park on that day - the elephants of the Elephant Parade. I took the opportunity to take many photos of the sculptures and the artwork they exhibit on their bodies, and resolved to present those photos on a web page. But this article is not really about Bangkok, or about the photos - it is about the parade itself. Wherever the parade turns up next, a whole new array of model elephants will await those who witness it. This is a constantly moving and constantly changing art display, and it is a display which serves a thoroughly worthwhile purpose.

If - or more probably, when - the Elephant Parade puts in an appearance anywhere near you, please take the opportunity to pay it a visit. Whether your interest be in art and culture, or in conservation issues, or just in multicoloured baby elephants, you will probably enjoy experiencing the day when the Elephant Parade comes to town!

TWO MORE ELEPHANTS

Depicted in the image are:

'L Enfant Noirz' - by Monlada Pongpanit. A glowing pink elephant.

'The Animals are Watching You' - by Iwaz Art & Workshop. An elephant featuring a colourful patchwork design of dozens of stylised animal eyes.

Copyright

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THREE MORE ELEPHANTS

Depicted in the image are:

'Choke Dee' - by Japanom Yeerum. A pink elephant intended by the artist to appear happy, peaceful and fun, to engage with children.

'Fire Elephant' - by Maitree Siriboon. A very different theme, and a much more sombre approach. This red and yellow model is an impression of an elephant on fire, being burned and suffocated by smoke as its habitat is encroached upon by the worst excesses of man.

'Doe-eyed Baby' - by SBC. Another friendly image - 'doe-eyed' because the artist wants us to fall in love with his creation, and with all elephants.

'BABY PP' - by Moo Asava

Thought I'd leave you with this elephant - I'm guessing some of you may think Baby PP is especially cute!

I’d Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun