Elephants are utterly magnificent beings. When seen in the wild, they appear like creatures from another world, and their size and grace is so humbling to a mere human. It is near impossible not to be absolutely floored by the sight of a real life pachyderm, and what could be more astounding than watching a gentle elephant use his trunk to paint a picture of a flower? This encounter would surely be the most peaceful, beautiful experience one is likely to ever have.
But wait; let’s take a step back for a moment. Under what circumstances would you come across an elephant painting a picture in the wild? Last we checked, plains of Thailand didn’t have a craft corner…
Well, if you find yourself in this rather bizarre situation, chances are said painting-elephant is being held in captivity. Elephant tourism is extremely popular in Thailand, so much so that the native Asian elephant population has all but disappeared from the wild. Tourists from across the world flock to Thailand to have an experience unlike anything they could get at home. Seeing a live elephant is often included as one of these experiences. Lucky for tourists, there are countless elephant trekking excursions, and elephant “camps,” where (for a small fee) people can spend the day in the presence of these breathtaking animals.
But, as we look more closely into these “happy” elephant excursions, the more concerned we become for the welfare of the elephants living in captivity.
The Incredible Elephant Artists of Thailand
The Maesa Elephant Camp has been in operation since 1976, and is credited with pioneering the concept of the “artist” elephant. Maesa Elephant Camp is located just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, a Thai tourism hotspot. There are seventy-eight elephants currently “enrolled” in the camp, all of whom were purchased by the camp’s founder, Choochart Kalmapijit’s over the past thirty years.
The Maesa Elephant Camp website explains, “Choochart purchased elephants from all over the country, and with their mahouts and other experts, worked and fell in love with the elephants, revealing one skill or fact after another about these pachyderms.”
The high intelligence of elephants is often credited with their ability to learn how to paint so effortlessly. However, just as an elephant in the wild would not chose to jump into a handstand, it is not likely they ever aspired to be a Pachyderm Picasso either.
One of the “skills” lauded by the elephants at Maesa Elephant Camp, of course, is the uncanny ability to paint.
How are Elephants Taught to Paint?
According to the Maesa Elephant Camp website, the artists of the camp started to take the stage in 2000, “when the young calves in Maesa Elephant Nursery reached two year of age, it was time to separate them from their mothers. ”
And like all good adults, these little elies were put to work! “From that day forward, these little ‘Jumbos’ would live with and be trained by a mahout, learning commands, performing skills, and – for the first time at Maesa Elephant Camp – painting!”
Further, the site explains that it took around a month to teach the elephants to learn to hold a brush with their trunks – they were a bit reluctant at first, but got the hang of it in no time! Once this skill was mastered, they were ready to learn to dip their brushes into paint. “One of our pachyderm prodigies successfully painted dots, while the other three chose to paint beautiful lines.”
And thus, the Gallery Maesa was started.
Well, if you’re simply not satisfied with this simplistic explanation for how you can teach a wild baby elephant to stand still and focus on painting, then please do read on.
A More Likely Story
While we cannot allege that Maesa utilizes these methods for training their Jumbo painters, this is a credible account of how elephants are traditionally trained to paint in the Thai tourism industry, provided thanks to the research performed by devoted elephant conservation organizations across Thailand.
Born Free explains that it is a “myth” that the elephant’s ability to paint is a result of their natural cleverness. Rather, directly refuting Maesa’s story about how their elephants learned to paint, “Elephants endure months of physical abuse to learn how to hold a paint brush, draw a straight line and paint flowers and leaves on trees.”
Like elephants used in the elephant trekking industry, young elephants used for painting must be broken and experience the pain of the phajaan process. Over this time baby elephants are starved, shackled, and beaten, until their spirit is completely broken and will submit to the will of their captors. Once young elephants have undergone this process they can being learning to paint.
Training a Master
Elephants use special brushes to create their “masterpieces.” These brushes are inserted straight into the trunk and have a dividing bar that rests at the very end of the truck to keep the brush from falling all the way up the elephant’s nose.
The paint brushes are inserted into the elephant’s nose as such:
And the elephant learns to grip around the top of the brush. The elephant’s trunk is incredibly sensitive and full of nerve endings. In the wild elephants will avoid acacia trees because these trees house ants that might crawl into the elephants trunk and bite. While the paint brush might not bite … we can’t imagine it is a comfortable experience.
During a painting performance, the elephant’s mahout stands diligently at the elephants side, poised with bull hooks.
Bull hooks or the more discrete method, a nail that can be hidden in the mahout’s hand, is shoved into the soft tissue of the elephants ear.
To train the elephant to move the brush to create stroke patterns that we recognize as flowers, trees, or even an elephant, the mahouts use these painful prods to guide the elephant’s movements. Further if an elephant paints incorrectly, they are beaten, either with a bull hook, or physically hit on their head or trunk.
When this skill is mastered, the elephant will be expected to recreate the same pattern every single day, sometimes twice or even three times.
Naturalist, Desmond Morris bore witness to an elephant painting show in Thailand, looking to discern whether elephants could really create paintings at their own will, based on their individual creative talents. From his observation, the mahout kept a tight grip on the elephants ear for the entire performance, tugging either right or left to manipulate the elephant into making a certain brush stroke.
What YOU CAN and MUST do to Stop This Suffering
After reading this we’re sure that a Green Monster such as yourself is plenty upset. We were too! The good news is that you have the power to do something about it by simply refusing to patronize elephant camps that feature painting elephants. Maesa is hardly the only “elephant camp” in Thailand, and it is certainly not alone in their practices.
If you see elephants being kept in chains who bear the scars of these chains around their ankles, that’s a red flag. If you see mahouts with bull hooks in their hands, that’s a red flag. If you see an elephant perform a behavior it would never in the wild (i.e. twirling a hulu hoop on it’s nose, or bowing to an audience), that’s a red flag. Elephants are incredibly intelligent beings, and with this in mind can you really believe that they would turn themselves into clowns for our entertainment if not being trained via torture to do so?
Sharing the Truth About Elephant Painting
Elephant painting camps, like Maesa Elephant Camp, thrives on the tourism industry. Between vacationers who visit the camp, to people who purchase and share elephant painting and merchandise, camps like Maesa are able to continue operation. There are also countless videos featuring elephants painting in this manner on the internet. Be sure not to share videos that feature elephants who are being tortured into painting for tourists, and to share this article with those who do share these videos. From the outside it may appear that the elephants can “magically” create works of art, but now that you know how elephants are traditionally taught to paint … it’s your duty to share the truth.
Many people do not realize the cruelty that occurs behind the scenes at elephant camps, but when you know what to look for – suddenly all the red flags are there.
Leave a Review on Tripadvisor and Similar Sites
While your individual boycott of Maesa Elephant Camp and others will make a difference, you can magnify that impact by spreading the word and mobilizing with your other Green Monsters.
If you or someone you know has witnessed the cruelty that occurs in an elephant painting show, share this article on their Tripadvisor review page to advise others not to stop by if they’re in the area.
Let us know (in the comments sections) about other animal attractions and elephant camps that should be banned for the way they treat animals.
When we know truth, it is our duty to share this truth. No animals deserve to suffer for the sake of our trivial entertainment.