Ruth Ganesh of Elephant Family is Determined to Save the Asian Elephant
Ganesh and her charity are pioneering creative ways to protect this species in the wild, an effort that will get a boost from our newest limited-edition Lip Veil.
Ruth Ganesh is “obsessed” with Asian elephants. She’s the principal trustee of Elephant Family, a UK-based NGO dedicated to protecting Asian elephants from extinction in the wild, and with good reason: In the last 50 years, their population has roughly halved, and 90 percent of their habitat has vanished. She assumed the job in 2010 after starting with the NGO in 2004, working alongside its late founder and legendary conservationist Mark Shand (he was the brother of Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles, who with her husband, Prince Charles, are the charity’s joint “royal presidents”). Last year Ruth, née Powys, married Ramani Ganesh, a businessman and longtime supporter of Chantecaille partner Lion Guardians—and whose namesake is the Hindu elephant god (kismet!).
Today the charity continues to fund wildly creative and effective conservation projects across Asia to help elephants and people coexist peacefully. We are thrilled to be partnering with them. Here’s more from Ganesh on Elephant Family’s exciting work:
How did you wind up in this role? Did you always love wild animals?
I got into conserving Asian elephants because I wanted to have an adventure with my life, an adventure with meaning. I grew up in a community of people that saw God in nature and I kind of shared that, but I still felt most alive when I was in the jungle. That was the place where I just felt electricity and I had this absolute desire to get to faraway places, have an adventure, and do something that has meaning for the planet. I got my break when I met an incredible man called Mark Shand, our founder, and I have spent the last 15 years on a single-minded mission to secure a safer future for this species.
Where does Elephant Family operate?
We have operated in 6 of the 13 countries that still have elephants left in them. India is the stronghold, so there’s about 20,000 left in India, which is pretty impressive given the population size there. We also work in Myanmar, Sumatra, Cambodia, Thailand, and a little bit in Vietnam.
"The elephants live in forests that are far too small to feed them, so they come out to find food.”
How are Asian elephants different from African elephants and what challenges do they face?
Asian elephants are very different from African elephants. I’m biased, but I am going to say they’re more beautiful. They’re less wrinkly, they’re smaller, they’re daintier. The female elephants don’t have tusks, though you might see little “tushes,” very short ones. There are lots of other details, like they have more toenails and one dome on the head instead of two. But tusks are the definer, and that has also led to a situation where the threats are very different.
The Asian elephant was poached very heavily in the ‘70s, and now there is a very low ratio of males to females in the jungles across Asia. And so poaching is not the biggest threat; the biggest threat is human population explosion, and elephants in Asia just not having enough space and becoming homeless refugees. They live in forests that are far too small to feed them, so they have to keep coming out of the forests to find food. When they do, they encounter all sorts of issues—motorways, railways, steel mines, individual human communities that keep cropping up along their migratory routes…it’s like death by a thousand cuts if you’re an Asian elephant. Our focus is really trying to figure out how they can live side by side with humans without killing each other. It’s like having a dinosaur in your back yard.
What are some of the things Elephant Family is doing to protect elephants in the region?
The biggest threat is habitat loss—their forests have become separated and fragmented—and we are looking for innovative ways to join them back together again. It’s like knitting. We are securing a network of elephant corridors, which are like little bridges between islands of forests. When elephants come out and need to move to another little patch to feed themselves, they can take this elephant corridor without coming into conflict with all sorts of human development issues. So that’s one of the things we do.
Another big part of what Elephant Family does is to help rural communities live next to the biggest land mammal on the planet, probably one of the planet’s most intelligent animals as well; it’s very big and very capable of fighting back. We help them live right next to the elephants without losing their crops and without losing their livelihoods and without risking their own lives. We spend a lot of money moving communities that have cropped up in the middle of the migratory route to just out of the danger zone, if that’s what they want to do. We also develop early warning systems. For people who work on farms and plantations, we need to make sure they’re aware of when elephants are wandering through so they are safe from danger. So there is a huge human element to our work. And then the final strand is campaigning and investigations: getting ahead of issues before they get so big and intimidating and difficult to solve. For instance, we work in Myanmar where elephants are starting to be poached for their skin, and bringing that to the worlds’ attention so we can stamp it out before skin becomes the next ivory.
"Our focus is trying to figure out how elephants can live side by side with humans. It’s like having a dinosaur in the back yard.”
What initiatives will the funding from the Lip Veil support?
This Lip Veil is going to put a physical smile on the faces of a community of people in southern India in a district called Hassan, in India’s Southern Karnataka region. They are growing tea and coffee, and they are out there surrounded by greenery, which often infringes on elephant habitat. Those hungry, homeless elephants will come through those tea and coffee plantations, and when they do, it’s surprisingly difficult to see and spot an elephant. They can look a little bit like boulders. In fact, when parents say, “Stop, you sound like a herd of elephants!” that’s wrong: Elephants tread very gently. So, if you’re sitting there picking your tea and suddenly there’s a herd of elephants behind you, you’re in so much danger. Lip Veil is going to help protect those tea and coffee planters and pickers from wild elephants, which are trying to get from A to B. The whole thing will help save the elephants and also make sure people are very safe as they go about their work with early-warning systems that will warn all of them that elephants are near with text messages or big red warning lights. When we trialed this particular program in other parts of India, we reduced mortality to 0 percent. So we’re going to keep going, thanks to you guys.
Do you have a favorite Chantecaille product?
I do! I’m wearing the Frangipani Lip Veil today and it’s lovely and delicious, like sweeties. I also love the Stress Repair eye cream; I actually have a story about it. I was with my sister in India last year, and the pollution was making my poor sister’s face more and more inflamed, really aggravating her eczema to the point where it was keeping her eyes from closing. We were on a big trip showing various projects to important supporters…and at a certain point we thought she might have even have to go home, it got so bad. One night just as we were falling asleep, I reached into my bag and said Oh, just try this! And I gave her the little silver pot of eye cream, and she smeared it all over her entire face. When she woke up it was all gone! And we were able to carry on with our trip and save some more elephants.