It's a jungle out there: Art event brings the wild to capital

Organisers hope to raise £1m by placing 120 statues of wild animals around Edinburgh, the city's biggest outdoor art event. On a trip to India, our reporter discovers it's all in a very good cause

FOR Lakshmi Amma, going to sleep each evening in her home in a remote area of Kerala state in India once meant wondering if she would be disturbed in the night by some unwelcome guests. Until recently the 69-year-old lived on a traditional migratory route of the Asian elephant, a strip of land covering more than 2000 acres and acting as a bridge between feeding sites, one used by thousands of elephants, who stick resolutely to their favourite routes regardless of what, or who, is in their path.

Amma was one of a number of people in India who live their lives in the path of elephants. Half of all the Asian elephants living in the wild are in India, where they're generally revered; however, a rapidly growing human population has seen people and elephants living in closer and closer proximity, leading to more than just the straining of a once-harmonious relationship: incredibly, every day one person and one elephant dies in India as a result of this growing conflict.

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Step forward Elephant Family. As loss of habitat is the No 1 threat to the endangered Asian elephant, and to many of the animals sharing that habitat, the charity teamed up with the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) to fund "elephant corridors" an initiative which helps people like Amma to relocate voluntarily to brand new homes nearby. It allows them to live peacefully without having their crops disturbed by elephants – which, in turn, are able to migrate safely.

Eighty eight of these centuries-old corridors have been identified in India alone and Amma lived on one of the most important, which connects 6,500 elephants (a quarter of the country's wild population) between two key forests. Until recently it was blocked by five human settlements.

In order to raise much-needed funds which will go towards securing these corridors, this year Elephant Family will turn their attention to Edinburgh for an ambitious project to "take over" the whole city with sculptures of Asian elephants and their jungle neighbours – from orangutans to tigers – all of which will be decorated by artists from across the globe.

In August, animals will arrive in the Royal Botanic Garden before migrating for Jungle City in September, setting up residence everywhere from Princes Street to Bristo Square, after which they'll be auctioned off.

"The growing human population in Asia and the demand on the land and resources means it really is loss of habitat that's a big problem for the Asian elephant," says Dan Bucknell, the head of conservation at Elephant Family. "These are routes they have taken over many generations, so when they're severed the elephants will still try to find a way round, whether that means crossing a railway line or going through a plantation.

"The elephant is a revered animal in India so people in rural areas who can't really afford to lose their crops will stomach some loss but with this happening, and on a repeated basis, the attitude towards elephants is deteriorating, leading to some quite deadly encounters."

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After living alone for the past 17 years in the Begur range forests of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctury, Amma was given the keys to her new home, in the village of Panavaly, last year. Like many people living in India, she has great respect for elephants despite the danger they've posed to her, and her statue of Ganesh – the Indian deity which takes the form of an elephant – was one of the few prized possessions she took with her when she relocated.

Through the WTI, money raised by Elephant Family has helped to set her up with a new home, more than 1,400 and a quarter of an acre on which she can grow coffee, pepper and coconuts.

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"Initially I thought that I would never get the chance to be living outside forest with some good land and a respectable house," she says. "But WTI made it possible. Now we are sleeping safely without the fear of elephants."

Amma's is the fourth such settlement to be secured, leaving just one to go before the whole corridor is fully protected and can be handed over to the State Forest Department to become an extension of the Wildlife Sanctury.

When the project began, the corridor area was inhabited by 54 families but – through voluntary relocation of villagers, as well as the purchasing of land – it is slowly being secured.

Villagers are given resettlement packages which include good-quality housing and agricultural land, however most are simply relieved to move away from the constant threat the elephants pose to their crops, their properties and even their own safety.

It's not just people who can clash with elephants on their migratory routes. The animals face everything from railway lines to low-hanging electric cables and canals, all of which pose a very serious threat.

These obstacles are all being tackled by Elephant Family and their

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partners: where large irrigation canals lie in the elephants' path, for example, elephant-friendly ramps with gentle gradients have been created so they can cross freely.

With loss of habitat such a key issue, Elephant Family's founder, the author and conservationist Mark Shand, is quick to reiterate that with India's population growing at an alarming rate, the charity is facing a race against time.

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"When I founded Elephant Family in 2002, the plight of the endangered Asian elephant was largely unknown and their numbers at an all-time low," he says. "Most of the attention was on ivory poaching and its effects on the African elephant. With people unaware of what was happening and how much rarer it was, the Asian elephant was overlooked and forgotten. But the world has now lost 90 per cent of its Asian elephants in the past 100 years, and even more worryingly, more than 95 per cent of its original habitat has been destroyed. People and elephants are now literally fighting for space."

Throw in the birds and other animals who share the Asian elephant's habitat and it's looking pretty crowded. The sculptures which make up Jungle City include a number of these other endangered creatures because Elephant Family is keen to emphasise that in protecting the elephant's habitat, we are protecting the homes of different species, all threatened with extinction too.

The organisers of Jungle City hope that the event will raise 1 million, and they plan to take it to other cities in order to raise a very necessary 100 million over the next decade for some of the planet's most critically endangered animals.

Businesses in Edinburgh are being encouraged to get involved with what is the city's biggest outdoor art event, and help raise funds by "adopting" an animal. The organisers also hope that the arrival of over 100 "homeless" animals in the city will help to raise awareness of their rapidly disappearing habitats.

In a year when it is expected the human population will exceed seven billion, the message couldn't come at a more crucial time. Human activity is spreading, natural habitats are shrinking and increased competition for space between people and animals an the developing world is leading to casualties on both sides.

With human settlements breaking up the forest homes of the Asian elephants, they are slowly but surely finding themselves marooned on areas of land too small to support their needs. The race for space is on, but stories like that of Lakshmi Amma prove that there is a solution, and perhaps even a happy ending, in sight.

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