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100 elephants are moving across the U.S. — a herd of life-size replicas

Visitors will be able to get close to — and even touch — 100 life-size sculptures of Indian elephants which are beginning a cross-country journey.

The Great Elephant Migration traveling art exhibition aims to spread awareness about conservation efforts.

The herd consists of replicas of real-life elephants personally known to The Coexistence Collective — the community of around 200 artisans in southern India who made them.

Conceived a decade ago by The Coexistence Collective together with Elephant Family USA, a nonprofit that helps protect Indian wildlife, the sculptures were first shown in London and India before coming to the U.S.

The herd can be seen in Newport, R.I., through early September. From there they will head to New York City, Miami, the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and finally Los Angeles.

The organization is planning to sell the elephants off to raise funds for 22 conservation organizations around the country as the tour progresses. Organizers said 30 sculptures had already been sold off, with prices ranging from $8,000 for a baby elephant to $22,000 for the largest tusked specimen.

In Newport, the proceeds will go to Save the Bay, which works to remove invasive weeds from local salt marshes in order to help restore the salt marsh sparrow population.

Turning an invasive weed into an art material

The enormous, life-like sculptures are made out of lantana camara — a tough, invasive weed that’s been encroaching heavily upon the elephants’ natural forest habitat, pushing the animals onto tea and coffee plantations where they live in much closer proximity to humans.

"Lantana has displaced animals across huge areas, because it takes over from herbs and shrubs that are edible for animals," said Tarsh Thekaekara, a wildlife conservationist specializing in human-elephant relations who's connected with the Great Elephant Migration project. "40 to 50% of many parks in India are taken over by Lantana."

From elephants in India to coyote and raccoons in the U.S.

Elephant Family USA trustee and Coexistence Collective cofounder Ruth Ganesh said that even though the exhibition has traveled internationally, it was always conceived with the U.S. in mind, because Americans already understand what it means to share urban environments with wild animals like coyote and raccoons.

"You have such an array of wildlife where there are genuine coexistence challenges," said Ganesh. "So this exhibition about elephants coexisting with humans brings the issue to life."

She hopes visitors will learn more about how important it is for animals and humans to negotiate shared space, as more places become uninhabitable for both owing to direct human destruction and the impacts of human-caused climate change.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.