Alun is a frequent visitor to Thailand and writes personal accounts of the country's great attractions in a series of easy-to-read articles
The Elephant Parade: A Story of Art, Culture, and Conservation
The Elephant Parade is a worldwide phenomenon. A global organisation that successfully marries together artistic expression with the worthwhile cause of nature conservation—all in a spirit of fun and good humour. It is a coming together of artistic talent to create a collection of elephant sculptures, each 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 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.
A Personal Experience
This article is written as a result of the author's own experience of the Elephant Parade on the occasion of its visit to Lumpini Park in Bangkok, Thailand. It features photographs of the parade in January 2016 with acknowledgments of the sculptors and artists responsible for each elephant in the exhibit. Several of the photos show both the elephant in its entirety and also the details of the artwork which transforms the models into objects of originality and beauty.
History of the Elephant Parade
The Elephant Parade had its origins back in 2006 when Marc Spits was holidaying in Chiang Mai, a city in the far northwest of Thailand. Whilst there, he visited a unique elephant sanctuary and hospital, which cared for sick and injured and maltreated animals. 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, inviting 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 artists and 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 almost twice as much. Then it was back to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in 2009 where the number of elephants put on display almost doubled to 100. The project had really taken off.
And the successful formula has been maintained. 'Elephant Parade' is described as a 'social enterprise' rather than a charity, as it relies not 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 new ones are 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 2006 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, the 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.
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.
Exhibitions and Fundraising Around the World
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, £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 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 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. Between the summer of 2013 and the summer of 2014, a year-long tour of 14 cities was carried out.
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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 Brazil. The Parade has certainly come a long way, but there is still so much of the world awaiting the show.
The Day the Elephants Came to Bangkok
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-treasured 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.
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 the 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 and Buddhist iconography
One of the big appeals of the Elephant Parade is the artwork created on the bodies of the elephants. Whilst many of the sculptures are different in posture—dictated by the visions of their artists—all are different in their artwork.
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, there are no photos of the whole elephant, but all the photos surrounding the text show the detail of the artwork which appears on the body. Much of it is abstract patterning, some of it is symbolic or deeply cultural, 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 created 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.
Details from the Elephants
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.
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. For more information, see Chris Chun's webpage.
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 sanctuary 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.
Marc and his son Mike founded the Elephant Parade after that visit by Marc 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 artificial 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.'
Thoughts in Conclusion
For the author of this article, a visit to Lumpini Park is a regular occurrence 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 that serves a thoroughly worthwhile purpose.
If, or more probably when, the Elephant Parade puts in an appearance anywhere near you, take the opportunity to pay it a visit. Whether your interest is 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!
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