The elephant parade comes home

The elephant parade comes home
PHOTO: Youtube

After a decade of touring the world to raise funds for Asia's pachyderms, the Elephant Parade art exhibition is back in Chiang Mai where it all started and celebrating its tenth anniversary with 89 colourful statutes of elephantine tykes on display all around the city.

Mike Spits, the co-founder, recently opened the Elephant Parade studio in Chiang Mai, and was happy to share the success story with his supporters.

"Eighty-nine elephant statue have been created to commemorate the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej," says Spits, the Dutch businessman who co-founded the Elephant Parade with his father Marc.

For the Spits family, the story started back in 2006 when father and son were enjoying a holiday in Chiang Mai and asked their hotel concierge where they could go for a day trip.

He suggested the Elephant Hospital in Lampang, 85 kilometres south of Chiang Mai and it was here, at the world's first elephant hospital run by Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, that they met baby Mosha who had lost her right front leg after stepping on a land mine.

"We felt for Mosha who must live with three legs for the rest of her life," says Mike.

"But it was my dad who came up with the idea to help these pachyderms.

"He told me he wanted to set up a social enterprise to generate a sustainable income for the elephants. He wanted to travel around the world with the Elephant Parade raising awareness and money for Asian elephants. I give him a serious look and told him that as he was 70, he wasn't going to make it happen. He returned my serious look and asked me why didn't I do it instead!"

The Elephant Parade started as a kind of pet project, a sideline to the younger Spits' business.

He set up Elephant Parade and the Asian Elephant Foundation, designing the organisations so that they could support each other in taking care of elephants.

The first exhibition was held in Rotterdam in 2007 and featured 50 Moshas in different colourful looks created by local and Thai artists.

The statues were later put up for auction.

The city's mayor later said it was "the most photographed event ever" and the then Dutch Prime Minister led the first auction.

That, along with the takings from the outdoor art exhibition, raised a massive 248,500 euro (Bt9.4 million).

And so Mosha became the first baby elephant in the world to receive a prosthetic leg.

The Elephant Parade, with its herds of brightly painted life-size pachyderms, has been moving around the world ever since, delighting spectators in Milan, Singapore, Florianopolis, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

The Elephant Parade came to Bangkok last year and the colourful herd roamed around Siam Paragon shopping mall.

But it was the London edition in 2010 that made the real headlines, boasting 250 arty elephants designed by Marc Quinn, Lulu Guinness and Diane von Furstenberg and others.

The celebrity auction drew Prince Charles and A-list celebrities and Scottish artist Jack Vettriano's elephant went for a massive 155,000 pounds (Bt6.9 million).

In Chiang Mai, the elephants are everywhere from Tha Phae Gate to Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Prathat Doi Suthep.

Well-known architect Duangrit Bunnag is the brains behind the black-and-white "Pottery Elephant", which is drawing plenty of admiring glances at its temporary home in Wat Chedi Luang.

"The pattern was inspired by the millennia-old Ban Chiang pottery, a fragile porcelain of great beauty," said Duangrit.

Another interesting pachyderm is "Sweet Sky is a Stargaze, She Will Take Me Home" by Danish artist Coco Electra.

Her work, inspired by the beauty of nature (and her tattoo) is as sweet as its name and you can find it at Tha Phae Gate.

There's a large herd over at Maya, the shopping centre in Nimmanhaemin Road.

As humorous as they are playful, the statues are almost as endearing as the babies themselves.

"We could have done a charity dinner to raise funds but it's much more fun to turn it into an art form," says Mike.

"We need to create pieces of art that people want to buy to save the elephants. It's give and take. We don't want to beg for money all the time."

At the Elephant Parade Studio on Chiang Mai's outskirts, Marc, 80, is busy checking out the statutes.

"Do you want to know the secret?" Marc asks me, as we stop at one elephant statue.

"If you look at the statues in Elephant Parade, they're not realistic or exactly like elephants in the wild. This one, for example, has three toes rather than five.

"Sometimes the real thing doesn't work. Many people hate rats but they love Mickey Mouse. We make fun out of the elephant. That's how it became so successful."

The Elephant Parade Studio now has local artists working on 3D-drawings as well as painting and producing elephants - big and small.

These beautiful elephants will soon be shipped to boutique and hotels around the world. The pet project has become much more than just a social enterprise.

The Asian Elephant Foundation, which was set up by Elephant Parade, is no longer active.

Elephant Parade has chosen to partner with the non-governmental organisation Elephant Family in the UK to distribute the funds generated for Asian elephant conservation purposes.

Elephant Parade gives 20 per cent of its net profit to elephant welfare and conservation projects and pledges to donate 50,000 euro per year for elephant care.

Between 2008 and 2015, the art exhibition contributed Bt12.5 million to Lampang's Elephant Hospital - now Mosha's permanent home.

"Ten years ago the Elephant Parade started as a father-and-son project," Mike grins.

"Now my daughter, Maaike has a tattoo of Mosha on her hip, and is the third generation of the Spits family to be involved with the Elephant Parade."


Chiang Mai's Elephant Parade is on display all over the city until January 15 and aims to raise money and awareness to support Asian elephant welfare.

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