On a seemingly ordinary day at the Maetaman Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand, an extraordinary scene is unfolding: an elephant grabs a paintbrush, dips it in paint, and creates pictures that’s similar to what an average five-year-old human child typically creates. It’s an incredible and amazing scene, and it’s certainly something that people like us don’t normally see every day. It’s so unbelievable that you might think it’s fake news, but it’s all true, and it did happen. Elephant entertainment like this is common in many entertainment camps in Thailand, to the extent that the communities there depend on such a practice as a major source of income.
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“But how do the elephants do it?” you ask.
You might not be aware of it, but elephants are known to be one of the most intelligent animals on the planet and are comparable to primates in their cognitive abilities. (They might even be known to give some humans a run for their money in the intelligence department.) They are also gifted with dexterous trunks that enables them to use tools in order to draw on paper. The only difference in these paintings to that of humans is that the elephants are not simply painting on a burst of creative whimsy but are actually trained to do so.
Watch an elephant painting performance from start to finish in the video below and follow the debate from there:
Snopes, the fact-checking website, confirmed this truth when they said in their report, “They aren’t engaging in any form of creativity, much less abstractly making free-form portraits of whatever tickles their pachydermic fancies at the moment. They do nothing more than outline and color specific drawings they’ve been painstakingly trained to replicate.”
But exactly how “painstaking” is their training? Zoologist Desmond Morris says that all it takes is a nudge or a tug here and there, and even some subtle pulling of the gentle giant’s ear. While watching the video below, pay particular attention to what the trainer does:
It is undeniable that these animals are talented and intelligent. However, according to the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival (EARS) Foundation, an activist organization, there is an issue of possible animal abuse as the elephants might feel extreme levels of discomfort while training. Moreover, it also affects their mental and possibly even their overall quality of life, especially since they are essentially being forced to paint the same picture over and over.
An elephant named Karishma paints on a canvas
This practice is not just done in Thailand and other Asian countries. At the ZSL Whipsnade Zoo in Dunstable, England, an elephant named Karishma is also being made to paint a picture, but not as a source of income for the community. Each year, in September, Karishma’s paintings are placed on exhibit to commemorate the zoo’s Elephantastic Elephant Appreciation Weekend. No payments are required to see the exhibit, but donations are encouraged, which then go toward the funding of conservation research. (Photo: Getty Images)
But it’s worth taking note that not all elephants are being made to paint in order to earn profits or to entertain tourists. At the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project, a nonprofit organization established in 1998 by two artists, elephants are trained to create their own art in order to benefit themselves and their fellow elephants in human care as well as their brothers who thrive in the wild. According to the organization’s website, the training process isn’t hard on the elephants because it is based on positive reinforcement and has a stimulating instead of restricting effect. It is also their project’s aim to educate and enlighten trainers about the importance of proper and safe training fo domesticated elephants. The result of the group’s efforts is a selection of paintings that display the elephants’ various individual artistic styles. The funds earned from the paintings go toward supporting the local community that rely on the elephants for their tourism value as well as the different conservation agencies that actively fight against the illegal poaching trade in Southeast Asia and rehabilitate elephants to reintroduce them to the wild.