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Three Questions with Tarsh Thekaekara, co- founder, The Real Elephant Collective

In a Q&A session, we caught up with Tarsh Thekaekara, co-founder of The Real Elephant Collective to know more about the unique mission they serve towards wildlife conservation, the Lantana Elephant & Livelihood Fund and the challenges when working with tribal artisans.

A breathtaking mountain backdrop enhances the display of life-sized elephant sculptures crafted from lantana weed, creating a stunning showcase of art and nature.

Q. Tell us a bit about the genesis of The real elephant collective and the mission that drives the organisation.

TREC (The Real Elephant Collective) is a non-profit company founded in 2015 to address the problems posed by the invasive Lantana weed and its impact on elephants and the ecosystem. Lantana is a toxic weed that is rapidly taking over forests and suppressing the growth of other plants. Additionally, it contains poisons that make it inedible for most animals, rendering large areas of the forest unusable for grass that animals feed on. TREC creates life sized elephant sculptures using lantana weed as a step towards saving natural habitat and raising awareness.

The Four Pillars of The real elephant collective's work -

1. Promoting Human-Wildlife Coexistence

The exhibitions, collectively known as "Coexistence," aim to raise funds for and awareness about human-wildlife coexistence. As the exhibitions travel globally, they engage with people and initiate conversations about coexistence. While discussions on this topic often focus on the global North, The real elephant collective aims to shift the narrative by highlighting the coexistence of people in India with the world's largest mammal, elephants. By doing so, they encourage attendees to consider what they can live with in their own environments.

2. Creating Awareness about Lantana

The presence of Lantana, a relatively unknown invasive weed, becomes evident when people encounter the Lantana elephant sculptures. The visual impact serves as a powerful tool to raise awareness about the issue of Lantana and its harmful effects on ecosystems.

3. Fundraising through Auctions

The Lantana elephant sculptures are auctioned for substantial sums of money to generate funds for conservation efforts. These auctions primarily take place through partnerships with organizations in the UK and the US.

4. Empowering Livelihoods

The Lantana elephant project has provided livelihood opportunities for a large number of people. Unlike a previous venture involving Lantana furniture, which did not resonate with indigenous communities due to its unfamiliarity, the production of elephant sculptures has been a game-changer. Over the past five to six years, more than 100 tribal artisans have received direct payments totaling over 3.5 crores, compared to 25 lakhs over eight years from the furniture project.

A stunning life-sized elephant sculpture made by the real elephant collective.
sculpture made by the real elephant collective using lantana weed.

Q. Tell us a bit more about the community and the work that goes behind creating life sized elephant sculptures?

The real elephant collective project collaborates with four indigenous groups residing in the Nilgiri Bio Reserve. This region holds significant importance for biodiversity conservation, housing the largest population of Asian elephants in India.

Unlike a traditional factory setting, TREC understands that indigenous people prefer to maintain strong social connections and engage in various cultural and forest-related activities.

To respect their way of life, The real elephant collective has established separate self-help groups, each consisting of around ten individuals. At any given time, half of the group members are actively involved in crafting the elephant sculptures, while the other half participates in cultural pursuits. This flexible arrangement ensures consistent production while allowing artisans to balance their cultural commitments. Crafting an elephant sculpture involves a meticulous and time-consuming process. Builders, many of whom are also indigenous artisans, are responsible for fabricating the steel frame, which is subsequently painted and rust-proofed. These finished frames are dispatched to various locations, ensuring artisans can work within their own villages rather than travelling to a centralised factory. The artisans then cover the steel frame with Lantana, a process that involves boiling and peeling the sticks before attaching them in layers. The resulting sculptures beautifully replicate the form and shape of real elephants.

Q. Could brief us about how this partnership with Rang De is going to work and the impact that this fund is going to create?

The fund aims to provide working capital support to tribal artisans involved in crafting elephant structures. This capital will enable them to continue their production without interruption and meet the increasing demand for elephant sculptures. The fund will be used to finance the upfront costs of materials and labour required for making the elephants.

Impact of the Fund:

Sustained Livelihoods: The fund will ensure that tribal artisans can maintain their livelihoods by creating and selling elephant structures. It will provide them with consistent work and income, particularly during lean periods like the monsoon season when other livelihood opportunities are scarce.

Scale and Expansion: With the infusion of capital, the production capacity can be significantly increased. The goal is to create 200-300 elephants and organise large-scale exhibitions. This expansion will generate more employment opportunities for artisans and increase their income potential.

Exhibition and Auction: The elephants crafted by the artisans will be showcased in exhibitions, including one planned in the U.S. After the exhibitions, the elephants will be auctioned, generating funds for conservation initiatives. The proceeds will be used to repay the investors who supported the fund.

Financial Intermediary: The fund acts as an intermediary, ensuring that the artisans receive timely payments for their work. By guaranteeing the purchase of the elephants and partnering with a reliable buyer in the U.S., the fund provides a secure financial arrangement for the artisans.

Cultural Preservation: The fund's support enables artisans to continue their traditional craft and maintain their cultural practices. By valuing their skills and heritage, the fund contributes to the preservation of indigenous knowledge and traditions.

Overall, the partnership with Rang De plays a crucial role in sustaining livelihoods, fostering economic empowerment, and promoting the conservation of elephants and indigenous communities. It offers investors an opportunity to support a meaningful cause while generating financial returns.

FAQs Why the real elephant collective focuses on clearing Lantana weeds? Lantana camara is an invasive weed taking over forests in many parts of the world.

The making of our lantana elephants clears forests of this weed, provides livelihood to adivasi families and highlights the cause of nature conservation.

Which region is the real elephant collective operating in? The 75-strong team of Adivasi makers hail from villages around Mudumalai & MMHills.

At Rang De, we are excited to enable tribal artisans through our partnership with TREC that has led to the creation of the Lantana Elephant & Livelihood Fund. You can invest in the fund today - your investments will cover working capital for these artisans, aid in lantana removal from our forests and also create a lasting impact in these communities. Check out the fund here Explore more about the real elephant collective here -

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