My maternal grandmother, Sonia Keppel, died in 1986. She was a writer and I was named literary executor of her estate. Going through her papers, I came across a photograph of an elephant chasing a mahout. That’s when I thought, Ahhhh, elephants. India’s full of elephants. The country moves slowly. That could be quite a nice way to travel.
I immersed myself in all the elephant books I could find. I couldn’t believe how amazing these animals were, how revered, how wise, how important in battle. And I learned that it was the Indians who had first tamed them, around 2000 b.c.
I set off on an eight-month-long journey in India, determined to buy an elephant, ride it across India, and write about the experience. The book was called Travels on My Elephant. It was about Tara, the Asian elephant who became mine and who led to my founding, in 2002, of Elephant Family, a worldwide organization whose purpose is to protect the Asian elephant. But first, a little background on me and the elephants.
In 1988, when I returned to the West, I found, to my astonishment, that no one knew there was a problem with the Asian elephant. Unlike African elephants, which are poached for their ivory, the issue for elephants living in Asia is lack of space. Their habitat is being devoured by humans encroaching on it.
These animals need large tracts of land—they eat through enormous amounts. Now, if you cut down the forest, you know what happens: The whole of Asia turns into a desert. Without water you’re talking civil unrest, war, mud slides—the whole bloody lot. Look at the big picture, what’s happening with global warming, because this is really what it’s about.
The elephant can survive only if forests survive. In the last ten years we have turned a peaceful herbivore into a psychotic killer. In India you have people killing elephants, elephants killing people.
When you look at elephant herds that are nonstressed, the males are never around. They mate, they go; they’re loners. In Asia the elephant population, which numbers around 30,000, is severely stressed. The males are always there and they’ve started running armies. They are organized and know exactly what they’re doing. Filming in West Bengal and Assam, I’ve seen elephants turn into thugs: With one at the front of the herd, another at the back, they signal to each other in subsonic vibrations that they can send up to two and a half miles. It’s the most extraordinary natural-history story of all time—elephant gang warfare. They’re not just raiding villages for food; they’ve worked out that humans are the problem, so they are going after people.
There are elephants that have derailed trains because their calves were run over. These are highly evolved animals. They have memory and all the feelings we have, including revenge.
Now it’s about survival, and these elephants are not going to go quietly. They are the only animals big enough, intelligent enough, to take man on—and that’s what they’re doing. But they’re not going to win. Of course we are not going to win, either.
There’s a great elephant expert named Dr. Raman Sukumar, the former chair of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group, who has said that perhaps the elephant has survived so well in India because it has always been revered as a god. For the Hindus, Ganesh—remover of obstacles, the god of protection. For the Buddhists, there is the white elephant. When you kill an elephant, you’re destroying a god—and religion is a tricky subject in India.
I have interviewed people who’ve had their children—or parents, or sister, or brother—killed by elephants just minutes before. I have done that. I don’t like doing it, but you get the reaction.
In the past people would say, “It is our way. It is their land. We cannot go against Ganesh.” Now the younger generation says, “Idolatry? That is the old way of thinking. We’ll take ’em on.” So now they’re blowing up elephants with Semtex. We have one picture of an elephant with the words “Osama bin Laden Rice Thief” carved into its side. That’s the mentality today.
You can cut a tree down and it grows back. Once a species goes, it’s gone forever. Richard Leakey gave a lecture that was very effective. He put up a slide of a mammoth and said, “This doesn’t exist anymore.” It can happen again.
There are 700,000 to 800,000 wild elephants left in Africa, but only 35,000 or 40,000 in 13 countries in Asia. When animal-rights people say “Captive elephants should be free,” I ask, “Free? Where? What—you want them in your house?” These elephants have nowhere to go. There’s no land left for them to go to.
“Why waste time on captive elephants?” I hear that, too. Well, there’s no such thing as a domesticated elephant. It’s called a captive wild elephant. It’s not like a cat or a dog; they’ve always got a strain of wildness left in them.
In 1993 I wrote Queen of the Elephants and shot a film with the same title that premièred at the Royal Geographical Society in London. That’s where I met Dugal Muller, who was working for Fauna & Flora International, one of the world’s oldest, most prestigious conservation groups. He asked me to set up projects benefiting the Asian elephant. That’s how I got into the conservation picture, so to speak. That led to my deciding to concentrate on Asian elephants only—both captive and in the wild.
Along with Dugal and my friends Caroline Casey, Robin Russell, and Nicholas Claxton, we formed Elephant Family. We gave ourselves the name Elephant Family because all of us wanted to be deadly effective, small, and intimate with our supporters.
First I went to my friends who love animals and who are incredibly generous, people like photographer Bruce Weber and designer Diane von Furstenberg. Then I called my other friends and said, “I need to raise $400,000. Will you help?” It’s sometimes very difficult to ring people up, but I’ve gotten so used to it, to tell you the truth. I always say, “They can only tell me no.” If only people would realize that. The amount of times I’ve rung people up, not thinking that they were going to give something—and they did. You know, that’s wonderful. Now we’ve got ourselves on the map. We are highly respected.
Of course, every foundation needs a person behind it—a face, so to speak. I suppose because of the books I’ve written and the films I’ve made, I’ve become that person for Elephant Family. But there is also the question of originality that is key. This is what people identify with. For example, you can’t adopt one of our elephants, but you can “date” one.
Last year we attracted the attention of the Royal Parks, which we had long wanted to work with. London’s Hyde Park epitomizes the elephant’s shrinking habitat—it’s a piece of land, surrounded by a burgeoning city, that functions as a lifeline for animals. That, in a way, is what’s happening to the Asian elephant’s environment: The elephants are surviving in dwindling pockets of forest. The only way they can move is through corridors, strips of land that allow them to eat and migrate from one area to another without feeling enclosed. Because when they’re enclosed, they lash out.
We came up with the idea of putting a life-size herd of elephants made out of wicker in Hyde Park. They were show-stoppers. Wonderful! Fifteen were placed in the park, each sponsored for $20,000. They were on CNN, BBC World—they were reported on everywhere. People came, saw them, and said, “I want to buy one.” Now we also make and sell them to raise funds. They look great in gardens.
With money from sponsorship and from auctioning so-called elephant blankets that were commissioned from various fashion designers, we raised enough to finance a corridor for elephants that is three miles long and two thirds of a mile wide. This links Wayanad and Brahmagiri parks and allows 5,000 elephants, a quarter of the wild population in India, to move between them. Imagine that. There are still three settlements to go, and we’re now trying to raise the $800,000 required, but the most incredible thing is, the corridor is already working.
What we’ve come up with, thanks to the success of our event in Hyde Park, is a project we’re calling the Survival Tour. It’s very rock and roll. We’re taking herds of these wicker elephants around England and to Ireland. In the future we want to bring a herd to Central Park in New York and to other big cities in the United States. We’re looking for people, or companies, or philanthropic foundations to sponsor an elephant or even the whole herd.
We’re a small charity and we’re taking on an enormous task, but we are very focused. It’s the passion that comes across—along with the fact that elephants are absolutely extraordinary. Once you’ve touched one—nine feet tall at the shoulder, its five tons towering above you—you think, My God! It’s a very touch-feel thing with elephants, elephants and the work that goes into saving them. You know what I mean?
Elephant Family stats
To remove the Asian elephant from the endangered species list.
Based in the United Kingdom, Elephant Family runs projects in India, Thailand, Indo- nesia, and Malaysia.
Bruce Weber, Diane von Furstenberg, the Raj- mata of Jaipur, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, Goldie Hawn, and Elsa Peretti. Says Shand, “Through the Nando Peretti Foundation, named for her father, Elsa completely financed a large village outside of Jaipur, which is now affectionately known as Perettibagh.”
- The Survival Tour, a traveling project to raise funds for elephant corridors in India, brings 15 life-size elephants from Ireland to areas in the United Kingdom, the Royal Parks in London, and the United States (in 2009).
- Woburn Safari Park, in Bedfordshire, England, will be home to the first movie theater dedicated to conservation and, specifically, to the plight of the Asian elephant. It’s a collaboration with the Duke of Bedford, who donated the space. More than $1 million has already been raised, with $900,000 needed for completion.
- Elephant Dating allows you to pick your favorite of six elephants and begin a correspondence of letters and gifts, including a bedside photograph, rosebush seeds, and, if you date Tara, a trip to Kipling Camp in Central India. All the proceeds go to the project, which looks after the elephant you’re dating.