‘If you go down to the woods today …’ We all know that the ‘big surprise’ in the woods of that childhood ditty is a teddy-bears picnic. But what about a surprise in a park – what could that be?
On a recent visit to London’s Green Park, the ‘big surprise’ for me was a herd of seventy elephants! Yes elephants – but of course not real ones. These magnificent creatures are the work of members of the indigenous communities of Tamil Nadu. These people live in close proximity to the elephants real-life counterparts and have learned to coexist with them; hence the name of this campaign, CoExistence. All the animals are life-size and modelled on real wild elephants from the Nilgiri Hills in Southern India. They are made from lantana camara, an invasive weed whose removal from protected areas benefits wildlife. Altogether there are a hundred elephants in this herd, with a further thirty roaming St James’ Park on the other side of the Mall.
CoExistence arose from the impact that the global lockdowns of 2020 had on the animals with whom we share our world. As their website says:
Twenty twenty was an exceptional year when a microscopic virus brought human activity a grinding halt. Photos of wildlife roaming urban streets around the world went viral. Herds of fallow deer grazed the lawns of housing estates in east London. Wild boar snuffled and foraged on the streets of Haifa in Israel, while river dolphins jumping in Istanbul’s Bosphorus, otherwise trafficked by huge tankers, cargo ships and passenger boats.
Our lightened footprint, the anthropause, showed us that animals and nature are just around the corner, waiting to share space, if we let them.
Can we make Coexistence more permanent?
There are places in the world, where people and elephants have always been living together in ways that are unimaginable to most of us. It’s an ancient relationship, that’s being challenged and negotiated every day.
Signs in the park highlight examples of communities who have learned to coexist peacefully with elephants. For example, halting traffic on roads at night so the herds can cross safely to new grazing areas; planting crops especially for the elephants so that their farms aren’t raided; making space for the elephants who use the tea plantations of southern India to give birth.
The herd are travelling the world. As they travel they are spreading the message that co-existence with wildlife is possible, if we only make the effort to meet our fellow inhabitants of this earth halfway.
I’m sharing this set of images of the herd as my contribution this week to the Photographing Public Art Challenge led by Marsha and Cee. And by the way, if you’re so taken by these elephants you would like to own one, they’re being sold in aid of the campaign. The money raised will go to grass-roots organisations across India that allow people and wildlife to live together more peacefully. But you’ll need a large space and a large purse; the calves start at £6,000 while one of the large tuskers will set you back £30,000!