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© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service

At Christie's London, the world's leading auction house, it was an event with a difference. Celebrities, conservationists and collectors emerged in large numbers to witness the first ever `Art For Survival Wildlife Auction' staged by the David Shepherd Conservation Foundation.

Mesmeric images of the tiger, rhino and elephant captured by the brush and pencil of world's leading wildlife painters dotted the walls. British artist David Shepherd's Tiger Haven brought back images of real encounters with tigers in the wild. Australian mouth-and-foot painter Bruce Peardon's Old Broken Tusk highlighted man's avarice in killing these creatures for ivory, and Belgian artist Carl Brenders' Indian Rhinoceros portrayed the danger facing the rhino for its horn.

For a change, the fortunes invested by collectors at Christie's helped them improve both their patrimony and minds, some of them said. The vast array of painting and sketches fetched anything between $1,000 to $46,000. Bruce Peardon's painting fetched more than $13,000, four times the estimated sum. For Peardon's painting flowed in his veins, but it was only a hobby until a motor accident at the age of 17 resulted in quadriplegia.

``There is this wonderful thing about nature that it always adapts. At the hospital I met two quadriplegics who were painting by holding their brushes in their mouths. I tried it and it gave me immense amount of pleasure, the will to survive and injury became secondary,'' he said.

``I discovered David Shepherd through a TV documentary which has given a whole new dimension to my work. I use water colours and oil as using the brush gives the flexibility which a stiff pencil doesn't,'' said a jubilant Peardon, who paints anything that inspires him from wildlife to people digging the road. The over $3,82,000 raised from the sale of paintings will be injected in the field for habitat protection, anti-poaching and law enforcement investigations into smuggling to save the dwindling population of these endangered species in Africa and Asia.

According to the DSCF Director, Melanie Shepherd, ``$ 82,000 will go to the Ranthambhore Foundation in India, $ 32,800 to Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia.'' The remaining amount will fund `Operation Amba', an anti-poaching plan to save the last of the 400 Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East and the Global Conservation Awareness Programme, which uses graphic advertisements to focus on the consumption of tiger, rhino, bear, elephant and turtles.

``When the buying stops, the killing can too,'' she said. Though this was their first auction, the DSCF organises many fund raising events throughout the year. About 20 to 30 exhibitions are held of David Shepherd's private collection of paintings.

``There are moments of exultation at seeing this magnificent creature and at the same time you fall on the ground with a bang when you see an elephant losing a limb by stepping onto a land mine,'' said David Shepherd, artist and trustee of the DSCF, who became a conservationist overnight in 1960 when he witnessed 255 zebra lying dead around a poisoned waterhole in Tanzania.

It was his work on the elephant that brought him fame. ``In 1949 there were three million African elephants. In 1989 the number had declined to 600,000. Earlier they were slaughtered by poisoned arrows, now they are shot at by AK-47 rifles. With the return of sale of legal ivory, efforts to curb poaching have come to a square one. The Asian elephant is particularly threatened. There are only 35,000 Asian elephants of which only 1,500 males carry the ivory tusks,'' he added.

The international ban on ivory trade was partially lifted last year. The prohibition led to a fast reproduction of elephants in the Southern African regions, where farmers complain of herds periodically destroying their crops. Seen from their perspective the elephant the rich in London want to save is a threat.

With international wildlife crime now officially valued at $ 8 billion annually, second only to the illegal trade in drugs, the slaughter of tigers for theirskin and bones -- each tiger skeleton fetches $ 30,000 -- elephants for their ivory and rhino for their horn must stop before it's too late, Shepherd said.

Most of the ivory, skins and other illegal wildlife trade is sold in Europe and the United States, where the market is flourishing, in spite of environmentalist and consumer groups campaigns.

Having lived on earth for 40 million years, fewer than 2,500 black rhinos survive today under armed guard having suffered a catastrophic 98 per cent decline.

``While saving the rhino we have helped conserve this unique ecosystem. Being an artist myself, I realise the potential of the Art for Survival to ensure this wilderness and biodiversity the desert endures,'' Blythe Loutit of Save the Rhino Trust in Namibia said.

``Black Rhinos are being killed and slaughtered from helicopters. They live in communal areas. We realised working with the community was the only way to save the rhino. It is encouraging as last season we witnessed 23 new babies,'' he said.

More than 50 original paintings were donated by the world's leading and most celebrated wildlife painters including British artists Mandy Shepherd, Alan Hunt, Anthony Gibbs; Canadian Bob Bateman; American John Seerey Lester; South African Keith Joubert and four Indian artists from the Ranthambhore School of Art situated on the periphery of the national park.

``The overwhelming response is encouraging. We must tap all art forms like music, opera, theatre as the money thus raised will not only save these endangered species, but thousands of creatures down the food chain,'' said Valmik Thapar, one of India's leading fighters for tiger conservation.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. 1999. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any www.india-voice.com content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated. 

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