Paper Chase

Saving India’s rhinos and elephants with papermaking

Elrhino is a small social business enterprise with a big heart. My father, Mahesh Bora, and I founded Elrhino Eco Industries, a wildlife conservation-linked waste recycling project, in a bid to save the one-horned rhino in 2013.

We hail from Assam, a very green state in India’s North East, as rich in biodiversity as it is poor in infrastructure or access to opportunities. Assam is home to more than 95% of the world’s one-horned rhino population, and a large number of Asian elephants. Both these species are on the brink of extinction and Assam represents one of the most distant frontiers where the battle of conservation is being fought valiantly every day. The animals are losing their lives to poaching, encroachment and erosion of land as the forest cover is depleting. Both Mahesh and I were deeply perturbed by stories of the deaths of these species – this was a loss we felt personally.

Driven by this concern, Mahesh launched a paper making project in 2013, several years after he had retired. It seemed absurd to most people – he was at an age where people are expected to fade away, not reinvent themselves; and he had neither entrepreneurial experience nor the affluence to fund the project. Ironically, the family deputed me to convince my father to close the enterprise before he went bankrupt. Instead, I saw what he was doing; I ended up finding my soul in this incredible initiative. I knew this would not only provide livelihoods to the local villagers but was also a very effective medium to spread awareness about the one-horned rhino and facilitate interventions for its conservation. And thus was born Elrhino.

Elrhino makes handmade paper from rhino and elephant poo and a variety of other forest grass. Cotton scrap is also a key component of the paper, accounting for its strength and durability.

The dung has long fibres which mimic cotton fibres. The elephant and rhino eat grass and the chemicals in their body process it only minimally, which gives the paper a wonderful texture. The paper is not only recyclable, free of harmful chemicals and biodegradable, it is 100% tree-free.

My father focuses on innovation, using the most unlikely raw grasses to produce the most interesting paper, devising methods to do work using only locally available resources and finding workarounds to problems that seem insurmountable in these resource crunched areas. While I focuses on design, quality, business development and getting the word out.

The paper is handmade, and processes kept manual to the extent possible without compromising quality.  While handcraft is never cheap, the only way to increase production at low cost is with the introduction of machinery. However, this kills livelihoods as well as reduces the beauty of our products considerably. While our products are expensive, they are still very beautiful.

The brand offers several paper products including stationery, gifting products and household products. The focus is on design that is inspired and reflective of the forests where the products come from. Being handmade, each piece is unique and beautifully imperfect.

Elrhino aims at impact in three distinct ways:

  • Increasing loyalty to rhinos and elephants among the local population by establishing a symbiotic relationship
  • Preserving tree cover by eliminating the use of tree pulp
  • Creating engagement with the species among the global community via advocacy through its products

Currently (September 2015), our company has provided income support to over 120 families, saved over 30 trees, and reached out to over 4000 people with the story of the one horned rhino.

The population that we work with is largely agricultural, with very small land holdings that they barely manage to subsist on, subject to calamitous floods every year. Elrhino represents income and food security. Conversations with the artisans working at Elrhino invariably lead to powerful stories of change – of a daughter who was able to go to school, a girl who was able to buy herself a bicycle, a boy who bought his first pair of shoes… these are stories that make us proud.

This year, my focus will be to take the brand as well as the idea of conserving the rhino out to more end consumers and making products available at retail points. We want people to celebrate consumerism by buying beautiful things and knowing that their money is doing a wonderful job, protecting these gorgeous species. I want to bring a piece of the forest into the home of every Elrhino believer.

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