Animal Works: Where art meets conservation
- Published: 13 November 2010
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14 November 2010
How did Animal Works come about?
I had been working as a conservationist on the issue of human-elephant conflict for several years, first in Africa, then in India, before I got the opportunity to write a book about my work (Elephant Dance, Pan Macmillan 2009).
Then the chance to make a documentary came about and that’s how I met artist Nafisa Naomi. We spent several days together in Assam, north-east India, setting up interviews and scenes for our documentary Elephant Wars, and when we came back we realised that we both wanted to do more.
We decided to combine Nafisa’s talents as an artist and my background as a zoologist and author to help channel funds and awareness to the issue. We want to make conservation everyone’s business.
Can you tell us about your co-founder Nafisa Naomi?
Nafisa is an acclaimed artist who has won many awards for her art. This year she won the Packing Room Prize of the Archibald Awards for her portrait of Glenn A. Baker.
She’s also a passionate animal lover who is absolutely committed to conservation. Through the sale of her elephant and orang-utan art, she has raised thousands of dollars for Animal Works’ conservation projects in India.
Why are elephants your current focus?
I think there’s no better animal than the Asian elephant to get across the message that species are running out of time and space. There’s something about elephants that everyone can relate to. They’re just such amazing, intelligent animals.
And they are the perfect flagship for the issues that many species face today – habitat loss, poaching and human-wildlife conflict.
In India, habitat loss is a bigger threat for elephants than poaching. Can you explain why?
In Assam, two thirds of the elephant habitat has been destroyed in the last twenty years, replaced with tea gardens, agriculture and sprawling towns.
Elephants are now coming out of increasingly diminished forests to what used to be their habitat but is now a tea plantation or a rice paddy.
To them, it’s still food and it’s still on their migration path, one they’ve had for generations. Elephants need the same things we do to survive – food, water, space – and they compete with people for these resources, which leads to human-elephant conflict.
It’s crazy out there at night during the rice harvest, when the elephants are raiding crops, from October to January. You’ve got elephants screaming, with throngs of men wielding burning spears chasing after them.
In India today, human-elephant conflict kills more elephants than poaching – about 100 elephants a year. They’re being killed by intentional poisoning, trains and electrocution in low hanging power lines.
There are only 35,000 Asian elephants left, most of which are in India, compared to half a million elephants in Africa.
If there was one word to describe Animal Works, what would it be?
Is there really a viable solution for elephant conservation, particularly in India?
Absolutely. Just a few weeks ago the Indian government declared the elephant a national heritage animal, which gives them the same level of status as the tiger and will see more government funding allocated to their conservation.
This is great news. In parts of southern Africa where I’ve worked like Namibia, the fate of the elephant has really turned around after a period of war and poaching.
I believe India could learn a lot from what they’ve been doing in southern Africa, by focusing on protecting and connecting the remaining elephant habitats and ensuring that local people benefit from their conservation through wildlife-based industries.
Through Animal Works, we’ll be supporting conservationists on the ground to do that, and because we’re run entirely by volunteers, everything that people donate goes straight to the animals.
Who would have thought that chilli peppers would play such a key role in elephant conservation?
The humble chilli – it’s amazing! Conservationists have been planting it to keep elephants away from local crops.
The best thing about this idea, which came from the Elephant Pepper Development Trust (started by conservationist Dr Loki Osborne, who just happens to be a son of the Tabasco family!), is that not only do elephants hate chilli (and therefore stay away from where it’s planted), it’s also a valuable cash crop for people living on the poverty line.
Animal Works was only created last year. What have been some of its initiatives?
Nafisa’s elephant art exhibitions have been a great success in raising funds for human-elephant conflict projects in Assam and they’ve really engaged people here in Sydney too. Animal Works currently supports two projects in Assam.
One is the Wildlife Trust of India’s animal orphanage, the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation Conservation, where there are 12 orphaned elephants – all victims of human-elephant conflict – being rehabilitated for return to the wild.
Next year, six of these elephants will be rehabilitated enough to be returned to a wild surrogate herd in Manas National Park, Assam.
These people are doing brilliant work at a high personal cost – the head vet at the orphanage was recently accidentally shot during a rescue (he later recovered).
The other project is based on my own work, trying to bring methods that are working in Africa to India, to help people live with elephants.
Why do you think art is so effective when it comes to animal conservation?
People love to be inspired and we all love a good story. Science tends to be all about facts and figures, but with art, books and film, you can really weave a yarn around your subject to capture peoples’ imaginations.
You’ve got a lot more freedom. And as long as the information is grounded in fact, you’re a lot more likely to convince people to get involved in conservation if they feel a personal connection with your subject matter. You’ve got to take them on a journey with you.
Do you ever feel hopeless, that the plight of endangered animals is too great? What keeps you going?
The problems can often seem overwhelming, but I see good things happening everywhere all the time.
We’ve seen the fate of several species turned around in recent years, like the Giant Panda and the African elephant.
And every time I look at my one-year-old son Sol I feel even more motivated to ensure that he gets to see some of the animals I have in the wild.
What brought you back to Australia?
My Namibian visa ran out and a short time after I got offered a job as head of the species program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Sydney.
I dreaded the return to civilisation after spending all of my 20s in wild parts of Africa, but within a short time I realised it was meant to be.
Why do you think elephants ‘show us the best side of ourselves’?
Elephants are like us in so many ways. They grieve, they get angry, they have fun, they show courage and sometimes fear, they have good days and bad hair days, and they are incredible mothers who would kill to defend their young.
They show us what we could be at our best: loving, compassionate, family-oriented individuals who take care of each other.
You had some near-death experiences during your time in Africa. Did you ever think of throwing it all in?
I almost got eaten by lionesses in Etosha National Park, Namibia. I was on foot and walking away from my 4x4 to a recent rhino kill to test it for anthrax when I spotted the lionesses – several of them – charging towards me.
It was a long 30 metres back to the car and I only just made it. Then there was a moment in my late 20s when I was lying in my tent in the desert of north-west Namibia.
I was awoken in the dark of night by an elephant bull standing over the top of my tent and farting. He was then joined by another bull, and the two belly-rumbled and scratched their butts on a nearby tree for another two hours.
I honestly thought I was going to die at the time, with 12 tonnes of elephant bull standing over me.
But in the cold light of day, I knew that Africa would always be part of my life in some way or another, and I certainly couldn’t give up on the journey I had started with the elephants.
Visit Tammie Matson’s website, Nafisa Naomi’s website and Animal Works, the organisation they co-founded.
Tiffany Lowana is associate editor at The Scavenger.
Images: Artwork by Nafisa Naomi, courtesy of the artist.