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The Elephant Parade - A Story of Art, Culture and Conservation

Updated on March 27, 2017
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Alun is a frequent visitor to Thailand and writes personal accounts of the country's great attractions in a series of easy-to-read articles

The day the elephants came to town. The Elephant Parade in Bangkok
The day the elephants came to town. The Elephant Parade in Bangkok | Source

Introduction

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The Elephant Parade is a worldwide phenomenon. A global organisation which successfully marries together artistic expression with the worthwhile cause of nature conservation - and all in a spirit of fun and good humour. It is a coming together of artistic talent to create a collection of elephant sculptures, each individually crafted and painted as each artist thinks fit. And yet it is also a constantly changing and evolving collection as these sculptures are created, exhibited and then sold off for conservation charities, to be replaced by new elephant models for the next leg of an ongoing world tour. Since its inauguration in 2006, tens of millions of people have seen the parade in dozens of different countries and in so doing, have contributed to this conservation cause. And in January 2016 it was the turn of the author of this article to witness the parade.

This then is the story of the Elephant Parade, how it came into being, its aims, and what it is like to experience the parade on one of its international stopovers around the world.

A Personal Experience

The aricle is written as a result of the author's own experience of the Elephant Parade on the occasion of its visit to Thailand. It features photographs of the parade in January 2016 with acknowledgements of the sculptors and artists responsible for each elephant in the exhibit. Several of the photos show both the elephant in its entirety, and also the details of the artwork which transforms the models into objects of originality and beauty.

A gathering of the elephants in Lumpini Park, Bangkok
A gathering of the elephants in Lumpini Park, Bangkok | Source

'Pink Princess' - by Gavin Fifield

One of the brightest and shiniest of the sculptures in the Elephant Parade
One of the brightest and shiniest of the sculptures in the Elephant Parade | Source

The Elephant Parade

The Elephant Parade had its origins back in 2006 when Marc Spits was holidaying in Chiang Mai, a city in the far northwest of Thailand. Whilst there he visited a unique elephant sanctury and hospital, which cared for sick and injured and maltreated animals - and the plight of the creatures who lived there moved him greatly. One animal in particular touched his heart - a badly injured baby elephant with only three legs, and a prosthetic limb replacing the fourth. Marc resolved there and then to do something to help with the care of this sad little elephant, and with the upkeep of all the other inhabitants of the hospital. Back home, he teamed up with his son who had a background in marketing, and between them Marc and Mike Spits launched the concept of the Elephant Parade. They began creating a series of polyester resin model elephants, inviting a host of artists to design and decorate one each. The models would be approximately 1.5 m high and 1.8 m long, life sized statues - baby elephant life-sized that is. Each of the sculptures would weigh about 65 kgs.

An exhibition was put together and first held in the Dutch city of Rotterdam in 2007. It featured 50 elephants painted by local artists and Thai artists, and after the event these were auctioned off, raising what seemed at the time like an astonishing €250,000. But the success of this show led to a further exhibit with new elephant models in the Belgian city of Antwerp in 2008, and that raised almost twice as much. Then it was back to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in 2009 where the number of elephants put on show was almost doubled to 100. The project had really taken off.

And the successful formula has been maintained. 'Elephant Parade' is described as a 'social enterprise' rather than a charity, as it relies not on donations, but rather on the sale or auctioning of its merchandise. Some models are pre-sold, but after each exhibit the rest go into charity auctions held by reputable auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's, and new ones are created for the next exhibit in the next city, each one unique and individual to the artist who designs it. Since the Parade began in 2006 more than 1000 elephants have been created, and at least 800 artists have participated in creating them. In addition to the original 'life-size' models, sale of limited edition replicas and other souvenir products associated with the elephants also brings in a substantial sum of money. A percentage of the net profits goes to animal welfare and conservation projects, originally through 'The Asian Elephant Foundation', and now through the Elephant Parade's official partner, the conservation charity 'Elephant Family', which uses the money to protect and care for the Asian elephant in a variety of different ways.

Famous and influential supporters of the Elephant Parade include Sir Richard Branson, the Duchess of York, Evelyn de Rothschild, Goldie Hawn, Michael Palin, Ricky Gervais and Prince Henrik of Denmark and many others. And celebrities have not only endorsed the project, but have even been involved in the design of some of the artwork too.

'Royal Elephant Gold' - by Chakrit Choochalerm

'Royal Elephant Gold' with its imposing regal headdress, had pride of place at the front of the Lumpini Park parade as a 'symbol of auspiciousness and intelligence'
'Royal Elephant Gold' with its imposing regal headdress, had pride of place at the front of the Lumpini Park parade as a 'symbol of auspiciousness and intelligence' | Source

'Disco Disco' - by Santi Takaew

Perhaps not as regal as 'Royal Elephant Gold' illustrated above but this mirrored silver 'disco' elephant is just as striking
Perhaps not as regal as 'Royal Elephant Gold' illustrated above but this mirrored silver 'disco' elephant is just as striking | Source

The Exhibitions

Shortly after those early shows in the Netherlands and Belgium, the Elephant Parade arrived in the UK and the City of London in 2010. No fewer than 250 models were put on display, and in a celebrity-attended auction in June, £4 million ($7,150,000) was raised. The highest bid for a single piece was for a model designed by Jack Vettriano. It fetched £155,000 ($252,600).

The elephants have since rolled into many cities around the world, and on four continents, generating huge awareness of the need to conserve elephants and their natural habitats. Bergen in Norway received them, also in 2010, and then two more locations in the Netherlands, and Copenhagen, Milan and Singapore in 2011. After this Belgium was again the showcase for the Parade followed by Germany and Luxembourg in 2013. 2013 would also herald the first arrival of the elephants in the Americas when California hosted the Parade. At the same time, a large scale assault on the UK was underway! Between the summer of 2013 and the summer of 2014, a year-long tour of 14 cities was carried out.

The Netherlands is the Elephant Parade's headquarters in Europe, but its spiritual home must be Asia, and from 2014, Hong Kong, Suzhou in China, and Bangkok in Thailand all played host. In between times, France has also received the elephants, and South America had its first visitation with an event in Brazil. The Parade has certainly come a long way, but there is still so much of the world awaiting the show.

'Joy to the World' - by Kai Varayut

Artist Kai Varayut wanted in his creation to bring pleasure and happiness to adults and children alike. A pink elephant in a tutu cannot really fail can it?
Artist Kai Varayut wanted in his creation to bring pleasure and happiness to adults and children alike. A pink elephant in a tutu cannot really fail can it? | Source

'Chang' - by Phet Wiriya

According to the artist, '(each) elephant has its own great ego and identity'. His elephant features a multitude of white elephants designs on a red background
According to the artist, '(each) elephant has its own great ego and identity'. His elephant features a multitude of white elephants designs on a red background | Source

Bangkok - The Day the Elephants Came to Town

Elephants are well known in the nation of Thailand. A national symbol, the elephant can be seen on posters and statues, and in cultural shows. Riding an elephant is one of the experiences many tourists look forward to when on a visit to Thailand. They are a much reasured species with a place in Thai religion and mythology, in history and in modern day life. The role of this country in the origins of the Elephant Parade has already been referred to, and will be again towards the end of this article.

One can expect to see some grey elephants in Thailand - both real and in artistic interpretation. But what about pink elephants? Or white elephants? Or green, red, blue, yellow and multicoloured elephants? That's exactly what was on show in Lumpini Park, Bangkok when the Elephant Parade came to town. The pictures here show just a small part of that Parade, and in just one location, as will be explained in the next section.

'Dheva Tong' - by Watchira Srichan

Devas (Dhevas) are demi-God figures in Hindu and Buddhist iconography
Devas (Dhevas) are demi-God figures in Hindu and Buddhist iconography | Source

'Khao Suay' - by Millie Young

Behind 'Khao Suay', the Bangkok City skyscrapers rise above the trees
Behind 'Khao Suay', the Bangkok City skyscrapers rise above the trees | Source

The Parade in Bangkok

It was late in 2015 the elephants came to Thailand and to the capital city of Bangkok. 88 models were created. The first stop was the luxury shopping mall of Siam Paragon where the elephants went on display between the 1st and 20th December. Then the Parade moved on to the night market and entertainment centre of Asiatique for another month. And then on 18th of January the show arrived in the leafy green Lumpini Park in East Bangkok for ten more days. It was here in Lumpini Park that the author came across the elephants on 26th January 2016. I had not been aware of their presence in Bangkok, so it was pure coincidence that I was visiting the park on that day.

As soon as I entered I saw a line of elephants along one of the main pathways - almost literally a parade led by the 'Royal Elephant Gold' statue depicted earlier. Another collection of statues was to be found a short distance away. At the time I knew very little about the exhibits, but the sight of all these elephant sculptures certainly kindled an interest.

Only a fraction of the 88 sculptures were on display in Lumpini Park, and several of the most extraordinary designs - notably some of the less conventionally posed elephants were not seen. These included the very original 'Sharkaphant' and 'Sheepafant' (shark and woolly sheep / elephant hybrid models) and even one which looked like the iconic Bangkok three-wheeler taxi, the 'Tuk-tuk'. Still, more than enough were on show to make it a worthwhile exhibit. As is typical of the Elephant Parade, most of the artists involved were local individuals or local art studio groups, and therefore many of the elephants - like 'Tuk-tuk' - carried a distinctly Bangkokian flavour, with the depiction of local scenes, Buddhist iconography, and such like.

Further details on the artwork will be given on this page, but there is a depiction of all the elephants in the Bangkok Parade at the local Bangkok Parade Website.

'Little Jaidee' - by Pinyada Ratanasungk

Little Jaidee carries a lighthearted montage of cartoons in affectionate homage to Bangkok, by one of the city's own artists. Bangkok is often abbreviated to 'BKK'
Little Jaidee carries a lighthearted montage of cartoons in affectionate homage to Bangkok, by one of the city's own artists. Bangkok is often abbreviated to 'BKK' | Source

Two More Elephants

Two More Elephants
Two More Elephants | Source

Two More Elephants

Depicted in the image are:

'L Enfant Noirz' - by Monlada Pongpanit. A glowing pink elephant.

'The Animals are Watching You' - by Iwaz Art & Workshop. An elephant featuring a colourful patchwork design of dozens of stylised animal eyes.

'Tusk' - by Nirut Sirijanya

'Tusk' is an elephant model created to represent the need for conservation. Together with habitat destruction, the ivory trade for elephant tusks is the main issue in the conservation of elephants.The model features painted elephant designs
'Tusk' is an elephant model created to represent the need for conservation. Together with habitat destruction, the ivory trade for elephant tusks is the main issue in the conservation of elephants.The model features painted elephant designs | Source

Three More Elephants

Three More Elephants
Three More Elephants | Source

Three More Elephants

Depicted in the image are:

'Choke Dee' - by Japanom Yeerum. A pink elephant intended by the artist to appear happy, peaceful and fun, to engage with children.

'Fire Elephant' - by Maitree Siriboon. A very different theme, and a much more sombre approach. This red and yellow model is an impression of an elephant on fire, being burned and suffocated by smoke as its habitat is encroached upon by the worst excesses of man.

'Doe-eyed Baby' - by SBC. Another friendly image - 'doe-eyed' because the artist wants us to fall in love with his creation, and with all elephants.

'The Garden Of Earthly Delights' by Prajjwal Choudhury

Part of the detail from many fragmented images on an elephant, the design of which is intended to show nature, and how mankind is growing apart from nature
Part of the detail from many fragmented images on an elephant, the design of which is intended to show nature, and how mankind is growing apart from nature | Source

Details from the Elephants

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Peacock Seasons - by  Rungtiwa Shianglum. A design by an artist resident in Chiang Mai, reflecting the natural beauty brought about by the changes in the seasons, and featuring exquisite images of peacocks'Khun Lek' - by Elsie Evans. Elsie is a Scot, resident in Thailand for 30 years. Her elephant carries a kaleidoscope of images of temples, cities, coral reefs and other sights she has seen around Thailand'Ru-Dee' - by INK Team. The INK studio painted their elephant white to represent peace, and covered it in hand prints to represent a 'hand-in-hand' spirit of diversity, unity and helping one another.'Devilphant' - by Diana Francis. Diana is a British artist living in Singapore. Devilphant is a striking gold, black and red elephant with horns to represent the Devil, or the dark side - albeit the lighter side of dark!'Chai Cha Na' - by Khunakorn Muenpang. The 'Victorious Elephant' statue celebrates the National Football Team and their sponsors Chang Beer, and carries autographs by the team's players
Peacock Seasons - by  Rungtiwa Shianglum. A design by an artist resident in Chiang Mai, reflecting the natural beauty brought about by the changes in the seasons, and featuring exquisite images of peacocks
Peacock Seasons - by Rungtiwa Shianglum. A design by an artist resident in Chiang Mai, reflecting the natural beauty brought about by the changes in the seasons, and featuring exquisite images of peacocks | Source
'Khun Lek' - by Elsie Evans. Elsie is a Scot, resident in Thailand for 30 years. Her elephant carries a kaleidoscope of images of temples, cities, coral reefs and other sights she has seen around Thailand
'Khun Lek' - by Elsie Evans. Elsie is a Scot, resident in Thailand for 30 years. Her elephant carries a kaleidoscope of images of temples, cities, coral reefs and other sights she has seen around Thailand | Source
'Ru-Dee' - by INK Team. The INK studio painted their elephant white to represent peace, and covered it in hand prints to represent a 'hand-in-hand' spirit of diversity, unity and helping one another.
'Ru-Dee' - by INK Team. The INK studio painted their elephant white to represent peace, and covered it in hand prints to represent a 'hand-in-hand' spirit of diversity, unity and helping one another. | Source
'Devilphant' - by Diana Francis. Diana is a British artist living in Singapore. Devilphant is a striking gold, black and red elephant with horns to represent the Devil, or the dark side - albeit the lighter side of dark!
'Devilphant' - by Diana Francis. Diana is a British artist living in Singapore. Devilphant is a striking gold, black and red elephant with horns to represent the Devil, or the dark side - albeit the lighter side of dark! | Source
'Chai Cha Na' - by Khunakorn Muenpang. The 'Victorious Elephant' statue celebrates the National Football Team and their sponsors Chang Beer, and carries autographs by the team's players
'Chai Cha Na' - by Khunakorn Muenpang. The 'Victorious Elephant' statue celebrates the National Football Team and their sponsors Chang Beer, and carries autographs by the team's players | Source

The Artwork

One of the big appeals of the Elephant Parade is the artwork which is created on the bodies of the elephants. Whilst many of the sculptures are different in posture - dictated by the visions of their artists - all are different in their artwork.

Whilst some are uniform in colour and pattern, others feature quite intricate designs and scenes which could be just as easily be hung on a wall, but which for the purposes of this exhibit, happen to be painted on an elephant-shaped canvas.

In this section there are no photos of the whole elephant, but all the photos surrounding the text show the detail of the artwork which appears on the body. Much of it is abstract patterning, some of it is symbolic or deeply cultural, and some of it is just attractively realistic or impressionistic imagery. It's all down to the personal whims and motivations of the artists who created the work. And I'm sure anyone who is familiar with the work of the artists involved will be able to recognise their trademark styles.

'Tiphant' by Milin

An elephant covered from head to toe in rainbow coloured, leopard skin spots
An elephant covered from head to toe in rainbow coloured, leopard skin spots | Source

Still More Elephants!

'Jumbo Queen' - by Yotaka Jullobol. One of the most striking exhibits
'Jumbo Queen' - by Yotaka Jullobol. One of the most striking exhibits | Source
'Am's Asian Feast' - by Emma Slora Breene. One of the most colourful exhibits
'Am's Asian Feast' - by Emma Slora Breene. One of the most colourful exhibits | Source

The Conservation Message

The plight of the world's elephants is the motivation for the Elephant Parade. African elephants are in decline - at least 30,000 are killed each year, and the main cause of this is poaching for ivory. But it is the Asian elelphant which is the primary current concern of the Parade. Where once there were many hundreds of thousands, there are now considerably less than 50,000 left. Numbers have declined drastically over the last 100 years - by more than 70% in direct correlation to a reduction of 95% in the size of their natural habitat. It has been suggested that if this sad rate of decline continues, elephants may well become extinct in the wild within about 30 years.

There are other issues too - when wild or domesticated elephants come into contact with humans, accidents and deliberate maltreatment take their toll. Elephants suffer.

But there is good work being done throughout Asia, by different teams and charities, many of which have been supported by funds received from the Elephant Parade. These include sancturies offering veterinary treatment for working elephants in Myanmar, Laos and Sumatran Indonesia, rescue and translocation of elephants who come into conflict with plantation owners in Malaysia, and education and awareness campaigns in India and Cambodia. And more than 20,000 trees have been planted in Western Thailand assisted by funding from the Elephant Parade and by the 'Elephant Family' charity, through which it donates money to organisations such as 'The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation'. In total, more than 150 projects in 13 countries have been supported.

Just one of those projects is the 'Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital', in Chiang Mai, and this institution - and its most famous resident - are the subject of the next section.

'SuvarnaPlai' - by Wachira Sijan / 'Phanda' - by Note Dudesweet

'SuvarnaPlai' combines two Thai words meaning 'pure gold' and 'elephant'. 'Phanda' refers to the worldwide love affair with pandas, which even afflicts Thailand, whilst Thailand's own emblem - the elephant - may seem neglected by comparison
'SuvarnaPlai' combines two Thai words meaning 'pure gold' and 'elephant'. 'Phanda' refers to the worldwide love affair with pandas, which even afflicts Thailand, whilst Thailand's own emblem - the elephant - may seem neglected by comparison | Source

This Video

This video shows the real life Mosha and the work of 'The Friends of the Asian Elephant' Hospital at Lampang. The video is presented by artist Chris Chun who produced elephant models for parades in the UK and America. He also created the 'Sheepafant' sculpture for the Bangkok Parade, unfortunately not photographed by the author, but mentioned elsewhere in this article. Chris Chun's web page.

The Story of Mosha

It is indeed entirely appropriate that the Elephant Parade should have come to Thailand in 2015-2016. Not only is the elephant a Thai national emblem, but the nation is also home to an elephant called Mosha. And Mosha and the Elephant Parade are now inextricably linked.

Earlier in this article I related how Marc Spits - founder of the Elephant Parade - had visited an elephant hospital near Chiang Mai in northwestern Thailand, and how, when he was there, he was moved by the plight of a three-legged baby elephant. Well, that elephant was Mosha.

The Lampang Hospital is run by an organisation called the 'Friends of the Asian Elephant' and it was the world's first elephant hospital when it was founded in 1993 by Soraida Salwala. Soraida remains its Director General, and since 1993, this institution and sanctury has treated nearly 4,000 sick or injured elephants, and those which have been the victims of human cruelty. Just one of those elephants is Mosha. At 7 months old, Mosha lost her right front leg after stepping on a landmine on the Thai-Borneo border, and she became the first elephant ever to be fitted with a prosthesis. Today, ten years later, she is still a resident at the hospital, and has to receive a new leg every year, which she then has to get used to walking with once again.

Marc and his son Mike founded the Elephant Parade after that visit by Marc and the inspirational sight of Mosha the three-legged elephant. And in each reincarnation of the Elephant Parade since then, a model of Baby Mosha has been redesigned with a representation of the host city on her artifical leg - the one constant in an ever changing parade. And that perhaps now makes Mosha the most famous elephant in the world.

The Lampang Hospital still receives regular donations from the 'Elephant Family' charity and from the Elephant Parade. And the crucial importance of the funds raised well-recognised by the hospital and its limited staff of less than 20. Soraida Salwala has said 'Without Elephant Parade, I don't think our elephants would survive.'

'We Love Mosha Bangkok' - by Thiti Suwan

Baby Mosha is undoubtedly the most important elephant in the parade - the only one to feature in all parades in all cities, and the inspiration behind the entire enterprise. The story of the real-life Mosha  is revealed above.
Baby Mosha is undoubtedly the most important elephant in the parade - the only one to feature in all parades in all cities, and the inspiration behind the entire enterprise. The story of the real-life Mosha is revealed above. | Source

Thoughts in Conclusion

For the author of this article, a visit to Lumpini Park is a regular occurance when in the City of Bangkok. But this visit on 26th January 2016 was made extra special by the surprise encounter with the temporary residents of the park on that day - the elephants of the Elephant Parade. I took the opportunity to take many photos of the sculptures and the artwork they exhibit on their bodies, and resolved to present those photos on a web page. But this article is not really about Bangkok, or about the photos - it is about the parade itself. Wherever the parade turns up next, a whole new array of model elephants will await those who witness it. This is a constantly moving and constantly changing art display, and it is a display which serves a thoroughly worthwhile purpose.

If - or more probably, when - the Elephant Parade puts in an appearance anywhere near you, take the opportunity to pay it a visit. Whether your interest be in art and culture, or in conservation issues, or just in multicoloured baby elephants, you will probably enjoy experiencing the day when the Elephant Parade comes to town!

'Baby PP' by Moo Asava

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© 2016 Greensleeves Hubs

I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun

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      Greensleeves Hubs 6 months ago from Essex, UK

      Deb Hirt; Sorry Deb I did not reply to your comment sooner than this - I've just been going through some of my hubs, updating them, and I saw your comment. I appreciate what you say. Alun

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      Deb Hirt 17 months ago

      Thanks for creating awareness for this important organization, the good that it is doing, and foremost, The Elephant Parade.

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      Greensleeves Hubs 17 months ago from Essex, UK

      bdegiulio; Thank you very much Bill. Glad you like this, as the subject matter means a lot to me. I love the idea of any project which works on more than one level as the Elephant Parade does, with art, culture and conservation all involved in the enterprise.

      I would imagine the Parade will surely return to America at some stage. To the best of my knowledge it's so far only been to California. To my shame, I never got to see it all the time when it was touring the UK, and it was only by chance that I saw it in Thailand - a very happy chance! But I'm certainly pleased to have had the opportunity to see it there and to publicise its worthwhile objectives here. Cheers again for your comment - always great to hear from you. Alun

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      Bill De Giulio 17 months ago from Massachusetts

      Wonderful article Alun. The artwork on the elephants is beautiful and it's great to see that it supports such a worthy cause. The video of Mosha is so heartwarming and it is great to see that she is getting the care she needs to flourish. Hopefully someday the elephant parade stops nearby so I can witness this wonderful event. Great job Alun, I really enjoyed learning about the Asian Elephant and the wonderful work that the elephant parade supports. Awareness is key to saving the endangered animals of the world so thank you for bringing this to our attention.

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      Greensleeves Hubs 17 months ago from Essex, UK

      AliciaC; Thanks so much Linda; I much appreciate what you say, and thanks for sharing - that's nice for me and my article, but more importantly as you indicate, it's nice for the elephants and the charities associated with them, which the Elephant Parade seeks to support. What began for me as a novel encounter with some attractive baby elephant sculptures, soon became a desire to publicise the good causes which benefit from their appearances in cities around the world. Alun

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      Linda Crampton 17 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a fantastic article, Alun! The sculptures and photos are wonderful. I love the thought that the elephant sculptures are being used to help real elephants. The animals need all the help that they can get. Thank you for creating such an interesting and important article, which I'll share.

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      Greensleeves Hubs 18 months ago from Essex, UK

      sukhneet; Thank you sukhneet for that kind comment. Much appreciated.

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      Sukhneet Kaur Bhatti 18 months ago from India

      wow, this is an awesome and very very informative article. Just love the pictures :)

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      Greensleeves Hubs 18 months ago from Essex, UK

      MsDora; I guess Dora the tiny island of St Kitts may not be top of the list of projected destinations for the Parade - you'll have to take a trip overseas :)

      Seriously though, thanks for that comment. It is an extraordinary project which works on so many levels - as an expression of local art and culture, as a fun event for the public, and most importantly as a major contributor to the well being of the elephant. Clever of Marc and Mike to come up with such an idea, and praise to them for taking the Elephant Parade forward to its current status.

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      Dora Isaac Weithers 18 months ago from The Caribbean

      Kudos to Marc and Mike Spits for initiating this Mercy Project, and to you Alun, for sharing such an extraordinary activity. What a privilege to see Mosha! I doubt that the parade will ever come near me, so I'm satisfied to enjoy the beautiful sculptures. Thanks!