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Here’s Why Elephants Are Invading Chiang Mai

The 10th anniversary of the iconic exhibition, Elephant Parade, returns home this year.

Don’t look now but elephants are gearing up to take over the streets of Chiang Mai. Not real elephants, of course, but life-sized baby elephant statues—70 of them in all, each painted and decorated differently. The objective: to increase awareness about the challenges facing endangered Asian elephants and to raise money to support conservation projects around the world. 

The annual art exposition and social enterprise is dubbed Elephant Parade and takes place this year between December 9 and January 15, 2017.  It’s fitting that this year’s 10th anniversary installment will hit the streets of Chiang Mai, where, in 2006, the campaign founder first met Mosha, the elephant that inspired it all. Over the past 10 years, elephant statues have popped up in the United Kingdom, China, Italy, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, The Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, and Brazil.

In each iteration, elephant statues are decorated by local artists, international brands, and top celebrities. This year, some of the creative minds behind the statues include architect Duangrit Bunnag, ex-Miss Thailand Cindy Bishop, and Team Ferrari.

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    Elephant Parade
    Most of the statues for the 2016 Elephant Parade in Chiang Mai are being put into place now, but with the help of our friends at Elephant Parade, we’ve put together a sneak peek at some of this year’s highlights, as well as some favorites from the past 10 years.
    All Photos Courtesy of Elephant Parade
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    Elephant Parade: The Beginning
    The premire Elephant Parade was held in 2007 in the hometown of the exposition's founders: Rotterdam. This first edition showcased 50 elephants, painted by local and Thai artists. The exhibition was an instant success, and according to the city mayor, it was their “most photographed event ever." The accompanying charity auction raised 248,500 euros.
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    Mosha
    Mosha is Elephant Parade’s star, and her story of overcoming adversity—culminating in the first prosthetic elephant leg—is the organization’s inspiration. These days, 20 percent of Elephant Parade’s profit contributes directly to projects that help other Asian elephants like Mosha in their struggle for survival.
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    Bangkok 2015
    Part of Elephant Parade’s travelling herd rested outside the Siam Paragon for the 2015 Bangkok parade in partnership with Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas. Eighty-eight 4.5-foot brightly colored elephants were exhibited in key locations throughout the city to honor the 88th birthday of H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
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    Chiang Mai 2016

    To mark Elephant Parade’s 10-year anniversary in 2016, elephants were photographed at iconic locations around Chiang Mai. This piece, “Amulet” by artist Nopparuj Chenarn, sits outside of Thapae Gate, the main entrance to Chiang Mai’s walled old city and the center of the area’s various public activities and festivals.

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    London 2010
    The 2010 Elephant Parade took place in London, where the 260 art elephants were designed by the likes of Marc Quinn, Lulu Guinness, and Diane von Furstenberg. The celebrity auction at the end of the exhibition raised over GBP 4 million (US$7,150,000), and the showpiece of the auction, made by Jack Vettriano, alone raised GBP 155,000 (US$252,600).
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    Singapore 2012
    The herd of over 100 brightly-painted, life-size elephants swarmed the streets of Singapore for two months in 2011. It’s been called the most colourful outdoor art exhibition (and probably the heaviest!) the city has ever seen, and in 2012, won the prestigious “Singapore Marketing Events Award” in the category of Best Consumer Event.
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    Bangkok 2015
    Conservation of the Asian elephant is more important now than ever. As actress and Elephant Parade Ambassador Sirinya Bishop said leading up to the 2015 parade in Bangkok, “The elephant is our country’s national animal and symbol, but somehow this once-revered and noble creature is now forced to beg for food on the busy and dangerous streets of the capital. I truly hope that this magnificent colorful pachyderm parade will raise the awareness and inspire us all to take more concrete steps to ensure their survival and well-being.”
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    Hong Kong 2014
    This piece, “Pearl of the Orient” by artist Diana Francis, was part of the 2014 parade that took place in Hong Kong.
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    Chiang Mai 2016

    Another installation in this year’s Elephant Parade in Chiang Mai,  “Ayuthaya Gold” by Parichart Injaima, has taken up residence inside Wat Intharawat.

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    London 2010
    Thammakit Thamboon decorated his “Union Jack” installation for the London Parade with a specific purpose in mind: “I wanted this elephant to be remembered as the London Elephant.”
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    Bangkok 2015
    Two visitors take a selfie at the Bangkok 2015 parade.
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    Chiang Mai 2016
    Thai buses, known as “red trucks” or “songtaews,” are found all over Northern Thailand. Songtaew means “two rows” in Thai and refers to the two benches that passengers sit on. This installation for this year’s event in Chiang Mai, by Wanchalerm Muenpang, is called “Red Bus” in honor of those iconic taxis.
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    Artbox Workshop
    This year, Elephant Parade Chiang Mai will include the Elephant Parade Land experience, complete with a behind-the-scenes tour, museum, and the Elephant Parade House, where anyone can pop in and decorate an elephant of their own. Elephant lovers who can’t make it to Thailand can order Artbox elephants from Elephant Parade’s website and create their masterpieces at home.
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If you aren’t an elephant expert, you may not know that the Asian elephant, which ranges over 13 countries across Asia, is an endangered species with fewer than 40,000 animals remaining worldwide. As population in Asia grows, the animals are losing more of their habitats to urban sprawl. Making matters worse, the elephants are poached for ivory (although they are not slaughtered as frequently as African elephants).

Mike Spits, founder and CEO of the Elephant Parade, said he hopes the exposition changes the way people think about the plight of Asian elephants.

“If elephants disappear, we are not only giving up on them, but on the many other threatened species as well,” he said, noting that the inspiration for this campaign was Mosha, an elephant that now lives at Friends of the Asian Elephant in Lampung. “Through motivation and commitment, much is achievable.”

This year, the fanfare will coincide with the opening of “Elephant Parade Land Experience,” an attraction where visitors will be able to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the Elephant Parade art studio and paint their own elephants. According to Spits, Elephant Parade also will publish a free guide to help visitors find all the elephant statues around town.

In the end, Elephant Parade donates 20 percent of its net profits from the expositions, and merchandise sales, such as limited edition, handcrafted replicas, go to the NGO Elephant Family, Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, and Naka Foundation.  Add this to the value of the public art, and the impact of the event is, well, huge.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com

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