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A Virtual Weekend Festival Raising Voices for Asian Elephants

Colin & Cecilia Hay (a virtual concert - Elepalooza)

2020 will go down the history books as the "home-stay" year - a year that people experienced isolation and emotional upheavel. On the bright side though, it gave us the opportunity to reflect on our priorities, reach out to people virtually accross the globe, strengthen relationships, and organize events focused on improving the world for all sentient beings - humans, animals, and the planet, as a whole.

One such virtual event was Voice for Asian Elephant Society's virtual weekend festival for The Forgotten Elephants of Odisha. This 2-day event brought together activists, artists, and prominent leaders for change, lending their voices for the elephants of Odisha, India.

Day 1, Saturday November 7th, was co-hosted by animal activist/actor, Dan Richardson,

and activist/writer/producer/model, Katie Cleary. The day featured Sangita Iyer’s multiple award-winning, U.N. nominated feature documentary, “Gods in Shackles.

The virtual screening was followed by a lively and informative discussion with a panel of experts, including Sangita Iyer, who, in addition to producing and directing “Gods in Shackles,” is also the founder of Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES); a National Geographic Explorer; a broadcast journalist and biologist. Joining her were wildlife crime specialist, Dr. Biswajit Mohanty; Belinda Wright, Founder, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI); renowned British actress, model and activist, Rula Lenska and journalist and animal rights activist, Jane Velez-Mitchell.

Adding to this exciting and enlightening day was an exclusive screening of “Treacherous Crossings,” a short film, part of the 26-part National Geographic funded documentary series, ‘Asian Elephants 101’, produced and directed by Iyer. This short ground-breaking film exposes the life-threatening challenges that Odisha elephants face, as they're losing their habitats to reckless development.

And if all of that weren’t enough, the VIP Guest of Honor was none other than the world renowned primatologist, Dr. Jane Goodall (DBE, Founder, the Jane Goodall Institute)! Aside from discussing her own personal bond with elephants, Dr. Goodall also shared her profound insights on how we can use the lessons learned from the pandemic to move forward in a more mindful way, inclusive of the environment and all beings on the planet.

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder, the Jane Goodall Institute

Day 2, Sunday November 8th, was Elepalooza, a virtual concert hosted by poet/ animal activist, Sean Hill, who balanced his whimsical energy with Sangita Iyer’s expertise, as they discussed the importance of saving endangered Asian elephants – particularly in India, where the 60% of the world’s wild Asian elephants precariously co-exist in one of the most densely human-populated countries.

Written, produced and directed by Maureen Mahon, Elepalooza featured musical performances by Grammy-winning artists, Colin Hay , Lisa Loeb , Tia Carrere , as well as Cecilia Noel , Victoria Summer , Libby Lavella , Steve Wood and Beth Fitchet Wood , Donald Quan and eaoh Argos , Dyna Shirasaki and Carlos Villalobos , CUSH,, Muddy Elephant, Lila Rose (f/k/a Aniiml), Holly Henderson, Wendell “Shine” Hayward, WonderBOOM and BlVd HVnny.

Interspersed between musical performances were informative clips about the importance of elephants to the Earth’s ecosystem by notable personalities including:

Lori Alan , who explained how elephants are the gardeners of the earth, Fia Perera emphasized that elephants are keystone species and that all of our survival relies on the survival of elephants, Mark Thompson discussed how elephants help mitigate climate change, Kelly King compared taking a baby elephant from its mother to kidnapping one of our own babies and subjecting it to a life of slavery, and Nick Jaine explained how the COVID 19 pandemic has exacerbated human elephant conflict in the region and how VFAES is not only helping save elephants’ lives, but also creating jobs for the people of Odisha.

Sangita Iyer’s short segment entitled “Hollywood Voices for the Forgotten Elephants of Odisha,” featured celebrities (above) Kate Linder, William Shatner , Ken Davitian, Wedil David and the Late Garry Marshall who shared their personal insights about these amazing animals, encouraging viewers to donate to this important cause.

A highlight of the show was a special performance by speed-painter, Amy Burkman who dazzled us with an original 30x40 acrylic painting in less than 10 minutes. She later surprised us with a second painting depicting Sangita Iyer with her beloved Lakshmi, a captive temple in Kerala, who was poignantly featured in Sangita’s epic documentary, “Gods in Shackles.” Amy dedicated the beautiful painting to Iyer, bringing her to tears. In addition to auctioning off the original paintings, high quality, signed and certified limited-edition prints were offered to the highest bidders.

So many people contributed their time and talents to the production of Elepalooza, including creative team, Caden Douglas , PJ Koelbel , John Hays , and Nitin Koshy Samuel, and Paula Tiso who lent her voice for the opening credits. And the overall success of the weekend would have been impossible without the support of Dan Richardson, Symity Ltd., Loreen LaPenna, Melinda Pharr, Shana Kelly, Jennifer Hebden, and other volunteers, who dedicated their time and talent to a worthy cause.

One point that Sangita and Sean discussed, which really resonated with me, is that we cannot turn away from the suffering of animals merely because it makes us uncomfortable. We need to meet the issues head-on if we are to make this world a better place. We can all do our part by sharing on social media, volunteering, donating and taking action. Our elephants are the true gardeners of this planet and we need to protect them and their home. Now is the time for us to ACT!

About the Forgotten Elephants of Odisha:

We call this event The Forgotten Elephants of Odisha because they've indeed been forgotten. Most of the attention has been focused on the southern Indian states, as they have the highest concentration of elephants. However, this is the first time the voices of Odisha's elephants are being amplified.

In the elephant range state of Odisha, fragmented forests arduously support an estimated 2,000 wild Asian elephants along with a growing number of people dependent on forest resources. There are approximately 45 million people in Odisha, many living along the forest fringes and corridors that elephants have established over thousands of years. The inevitable encounters with elephants lead to conflict and an alarming number of deaths, as elephants and humans struggle for limited resources.

When the COVID-19 lockdown hit India, millions of migrant workers lost their jobs. These villagers, mostly farmers, traveled to cities for part-time work to supplement the meager earnings during the harvest season. Now, most people are all stuck at home - unemployed and stressed, worried that elephants will destroy whatever is left of their livelihood and crops. And they are taking matters into their own hands.

The increased anxiety and economic pressure resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has been like tossing a match on tinder, making an already dire situation for the elephants even more perilous. At least one-third of the more than 60 elephants killed in India during the COVID lockdown is from Odisha state - a graveyard for elephants. Most of them have been killed by electrocution, poisoning and poaching for the illicit ivory trade.

Developmental activities such as illegal mining in prime habitats, highly invasive and poorly planned infrastructure, land diversions, and even forest fires add to the friction as they cause irreversible damage to this elephant landscape. Furthermore, rampant poaching by local gangs has a direct impact on the breeding populations of elephants in the region, as they target the bull elephants with tusks.

VFAES has partnered with a grassroots organization - Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) - to bring an end to this insanity. VFAES and WPSI will lead a team of local conservationists to steer knowledge-driven elephant conservation actions in some of the most vulnerable regions of the state. Over the long term, our aim is to secure a future for Odisha’s forgotten elephants, by promoting a harmonious and respectful human elephant co-existence.

VFAES will use the funds raised through this event to save 2,000 wild elephants, by hiring the native people to monitor and implement the following strategies:

  1. Prevent electrocution by wire traps and electrified fences

  2. Monitor eight important corridors, out of the 14 identified

  3. Monitor and address multiple threats to elephants in key habitats in Dhenkanal, Angul & Keonjhar districts

  4. Fodder planting in the Taal–Kholagarh Elephant Corridor

  5. Protect elephant habitat from forest fires

  6. Awareness and education for school children and key stakeholders

  7. Engage local communities

Despite the unprecedented challenges, Odisha still offers perhaps the best chance of securing a future for Asian elephants in Eastern India.

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