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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Why elephants paint

Published 09/08/09
By Monica Engebretson, Senior Program Associate

Images of elephants painting have recently been making the rounds on the Internet. In addition, the paintings of elephants are being lauded as a fundraising tool ostensibly for elephant conservation.

I’ve wondered for a long time whether this elephant painting phenomenon is “good,” “bad,” or somewhere in between.

A list of questions comes to mind:

Why are the elephants in captivity in the first place? Are the painting elephants rescued (i.e., not taken from the wild or bred in captivity for entertainment? )

Is the painting a form of enrichment for elephants who for whatever reason can’t be released into the wild?

Do the elephants that paint enjoy the activity? Do they participate of their own interest and volition?


Are the elephants forced to paint under threat of physical or psychological punishment?

Is painting yet another performance stunt for tourists and the profits from the painting therefore support and encourage elephant abuse and exploitation?

As highly intelligent animals, it is entirely possible in a rescue situation (i.e., the elephants are not acquired for the sole purpose of display nor perform tricks for visitors) for an elephant once given a demonstration on how to hold a paint brush, to dip it in paint and then create an image of his or her design using his/her highly dexterous trunk, and for that elephant to gain enjoyment from the activity.

If the funds generated from subsequent sale of said paintings directly benefit either the care of the elephant(s) (again rescued, not acquired for exploitation) or the protection of wild elephants through habitat protection or anti-poaching efforts, it’s hard to say what could be wrong with the situation.

I however, cannot say with confidence that I am aware of any such situation to point to as a good example.

"Painting elephants" has taken off as an attraction in Thailand and has been popularized by the well-meaning efforts of two Russian artists who endeavored to sell elephant paintings to “save them.”

From the artists’ own accounts of their endeavors, it is revealed that indeed many if not most painting elephants in Thailand are young elephants who have been taken from their mothers and “trained” to perform various stunts for tourists with painting being one more stunt.

The artists recalled that many if not most Thai elephant handlers called “Mahouts” are “indifferent” to their elephant charges. Treatment varied from mahouts that shouted at elephants who failed to paint to those that gently encouraged their elephants to paint.

However,in every picture I have seen of “painting elephants,” the mahouts hold at hand a ready bullhook —evidence of a fundamental reliance on abusive training methods.

Elephants were also frequently chained to posts while they painted. In addition, at all of the facilities with painting elephants, the elephants were force to perform circuslike tricks for tourists. Such stunts are traditionally achieved through fear, force, and intimidation.

Even if the photos shown in promotional materials or websites don't show the bullhooks and chains, a simple Google image search of the “elephant camps” listed as the source of the paintings shows ample images of handlers with bullhooks and circus-style tricks performed for the applauding tourists. Elephant rides are also a staple of these camps.

Also, almost every "painting elephant" is a very young elephant — who should still be with his/her mother.

How the funds from sale of paintings by elephants is used is also highly variable.

Some of the higher profile paintings offered for sale in New York were said to benefit conservation of the species. A closer look revealed that the money would be used to set up a “milk bank” to provide specially formulated milk for baby elephants that are “orphaned” or “weaned too early.”

This sounds harmless, but one must wonder if “weaned too early” actually means “forcibly taken from their mother to begin ‘training’.”

Indeed, the removal of baby elephants from their mothers and poaching of baby elephants in the wild to use as performers is a rampant problem in Thailand.

My advice is this: Ask yourself the above list of questions before deciding to support any such activity by purchasing a painting by an elephant artist to make sure you are not inadvertently supporting cruelty and exploitation.

Blogging off,


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