How an orphaned elephant gave an artist new purpose

12 Aug

Back in January 2013, Malaysian artistChristine Das was scrolling through Facebook when she spotted an alarming post. It showed a picture of a baby elephant reaching its trunk out to its dead mother. "The tagline said something like: 'he was trying to nuzzle her awake'," she recalls.


It turned out he was the sole survivor of a herd of 15 rare Borneo pygmy elephants that were suspected to have died of poisoning near an oil palm plantation in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah. The calf had survived only because he had been nursing from his mother until then. 

Endangered pygmy elephants are found only on the northeast tip of the island of Borneo. Smaller and chubbier than other Asian elephants, the World Wildlife Fund estimates their numbers to be fewer than 1,500 in the wild.

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That picture of "Little Joe" — as the elephant calf came to be known in the media — made global headlines and had a profound impact on Das. "It hit me in a way like when somebody you really love dies and you grieve. It's exactly what I went through. And it was just a picture that evoked this deep reaction and emotional connection," she told DW.

Renewed purpose

Das had already been undergoing a major shift in the years prior: "You know, the whole big question, like, why am I here?" A mid-life crisis at the age of 40 prompted her to quit her day job as a graphic designer in a media agency and pursue a solo career as a painter.

When she saw the image of Little Joe, she began researching about the fate of elephants and was shocked at just how endangered they were. While many experts caution that statistics on elephant populations frequently change, the fact is that elephants in general were once common throughout Africa and Asia, and that "populations have experienced significant declines over the last century," the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) notes.

"The greatest threat to African elephants is poaching for the illegal ivory trade, while Asian elephant populations are most at risk from habitat loss and the resulting human-elephant conflict."

Larger elephant with trunk entwined with smaller elephant, in purple and green colors.

'Cuddles #2,' acrylic on canvas, from 2013, by Christine Das

Some elephants have been known to crush crops and stampede villages, causing resentment among crop owners — resulting sometimes with them being baited with poisoned pineapples or bananas. But with growing human population and development, these animals' natural habitat has continued to dwindle.

It is even more ironic since in various cultures the elephant is seen as a symbol of luck, prosperity and a destroyer of evil and revered for its intelligence, memory and sense of vitality. In India, countless temples are dedicated to the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesha, who according to the Encyclopedia Britannica is "traditionally worshipped before any major enterprise and is the patron of intellectuals, bankers, scribes, and authors." 

Elephants are 'our lifeline'

For Christine Das, though, these gentle giants have become motifs in her wildlife artwork for other reasons. "I don't see elephants as spiritual or religious symbols, but as majestic creatures ... and as life-givers of the forest," she says, adding that they are good gardeners. "The elephant is our lifeline, because without them, forest health will decline," she pointed out.

The animals are considered "eco-engineers," as they fertilize land and excavate watering holes. Furthermore, they can normally roam great distances, thus helping to disperse seeds and tree seedlings that promote forest growth.

Thus, inspired by these magnificent creatures, part of the proceeds from the sale of Das' paintings go towards purchasing saplings and seedlings for reforestation, making her an artistic "eco-engineer" in her own right. Elephant Walk painting in purple, blue and green shows elephants walking mostly in a lline, by Christine Das.

Female power

Environmental activist Das sees an additional strength reflected in elephants. "I see woman power because the whole herd is led by females. So from the head of the herd to the mother, the cousins, they're all like women looking after the whole herd." Together with WWF Malaysia, Das has also rendered her signature elephant designs onto t-shirts with all proceeds of  their sales being  channeled towards elephant conservation efforts.

Besides her focus on elephants, Das has also featured the highlyendangered tigers in her artwork, and thus they too benefit from reforestation efforts to broaden their habitat. 

World Elephant Day

Conceived by Canadian filmmakers Patricia Sims and Michael Clark, as well as Sivaporn Dardarananda of Thailand's Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, World Elephant Day (WED) on August 12 was launched in 2012 to "bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants." 

According to the WED website, "elephant numbers have dropped by 62% over the last decade, and they could be mostly extinct by the end of the next decade." Since 2012, over 100 wildlife organizations, as well as countless individuals, have come together on World Elephant Day to advocate on behalf of elephants with conservation campaigns, outreach programs and events around the world.

'So Wild' at heart

In September 2013, Christine Das finally got the chance to meet her 'muse' Little Joe at the sanctuary that housed him then. Describing the moment when he came out of his enclosure she says, "I fell in love with him at first sight. He did come up to me for some reason although there were many others there with me. He grabbed my hand with his little trunk as if to say 'hello.' He then kind of tugged my hair and I managed to kiss him on the forehead...I can't put it in words. My heart burst!" 

Today, Das has amped up her animal conservation endeavors by offering educational art workshops titled "So Wild." Partnering with sponsors and zoos, she leads classes for adults and children, in which participants receive art kits with elephant or tiger sculptures that they can paint and design themselves as limited editions. In the process, they learn about the animals and what they can do to help protect them.

"Little Joe changed me forever. He opened up a part of my soul that I didn't know existed. All I know is that I have to do everything I can within my capacity and my art to protect them (wildlife) like I would my family." 


Edited by Brenda Haas

Author Louisa Schaefer

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