waris-ahluwalia

Interview by Serena Guen

When you think of explorers the people who probably spring to mind are Francis Drake, Christopher Columbus and perhaps Neil Armstrong. They all have something in common with the pink shoe-wearing actor and fashion designer Waris Ahluwalia; each were fuelled by a curiosity in the world that inspired them to make a difference.

A “global explorer” for The Luxury Collection and patron of London-based charity Elephant Family, Ahluwalia’s latest project will fuse philanthropy and adventure  in “Travel to My Elephant”, an 800km race across Rajasthan on a Gujarati bike, sponsored by the hotel group. The expedition will kick off with a feast on the parapets of the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, with the festivities continuing en route in the form of  parties on salt plains, dinners atop sand dunes, Diwali fireworks and Bollywood entertainers. For a man who has been hailed an “It” boy having “decided a long time ago [that he] enjoys having a nice time”, it was a glass-slipper fit for the Wes Anderson star. Inspired by the late Mark Shand, the former chairman of Elephant Family, the race is part of an initiative to continue Shand’s lifelong work through conservation and celebration.

Ahluwalia has also created a menu of bespoke Indian-inspired cocktails for The Luxury Collection’s London properties – The Westbury, The Wellesley and Park Tower – with 100% of the proceeds going to the charity. We sat down with the actor to talk about protecting the ecosystem while having a good time.

What does it mean to be a global explorer for The Luxury Collection?

When we first sat down and they presented all the hotels I said, “This sounds amazing, but if you’re looking for someone to go to a few properties, shake hands and take some pictures then I’m probably not your guy.” But fortunately they were interested in exploring an idea and creating experiences, not just for myself but for a community, so we took it from there.

So the elephant rally was a collaborative idea?

We’ve worked together really well in the past, so when the team asked me what I was doing and how they could get involved I immediately thought of Elephant Family, who I’ve worked with for 10 years now.

Tell us some more about the Elephant Family.

It’s an incredible organisation based in London that works to protect the Asian elephant, its habitat and the community at large. They do this primarily by land conservation and buying up “elephant corridors”. Elephants have migratory pathways they take to reach water, and they’ve had the same routes for decades. These are being disrupted by urbanisation; people find good land and settle on it, unaware that it’s an elephant corridor. The elephants will then come through and eat all their crops putting the whole village at risk. They particularly like their rice wine – the elephants can smell it and will knock down houses to get to the wine.

Because they want to drink it or…?

Yes, absolutely.

So elephants are secret alcoholics?

I don’t know if it’s a secret, they don’t try to hide it. They’ll destroy a house – if it was a secret they’d send another to go get it! Elephant Family worked with the local government, the village and the wildlife trust of India and we relocated the village to higher ground to avoid human-elephant conflict.

Wow, so you relocated the whole village instead of re-routing the elephants?

Have you tried talking to an elephant? We worked with the village, gave them more land and taught them better farming techniques, such as subsistence farming. The new houses are made of concrete as opposed to mud, so they’re stronger. It’s helping both the elephants and the communities.

Why the elephant?

Elephants are the largest mammals and need this much land [he stretches his arms out wide], while an owl only needs this much [makes a much smaller space with his hands]. If you protect the elephant you’re protecting a much larger area and all the flora and fauna within it, so really you’re looking after the whole ecosystem. If we lose the elephant it means we’ve lost a lot of land, and that leads to more problems. It’s about saving humanity rather than just saving elephants.

Where did the idea for the cocktails come from?

I decided long ago that I like having a nice time. It’s about what we can do with the time we’re here and how we can enjoy it. Collaborations like creating the cocktails are such a natural fit; you come for a drink, and if you choose one of our cocktails you’ll be doing some good while having fun. It’s like a Trojan horse. It’s a little bit of eduction, a little bit of information and a little bit of good. All of the proceeds from the drinks are being donated to the charity.

Having had a glimpse of your worldview, how does acting fit into all of this?

A film is a story, and whether I’m designing jewellery, working with a marble maker or embarking on a race across India, they’re all stories too.

 

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