The Dark Side Of Elephant Artists

Elephants are extremely brilliant creatures. At just a glance, anyone can see the magnificence of this massive animal. With a weight at over 5 tons and standing at a towering 13 feet, they are the worlds largest land animals. The brain of an elephant is just as incredible, not only is it also the largest of any land animal, weighing up to 13 pounds, but its looks very similar to that of a human brain.

Their brains are so advanced in fact that they can be taught many skills and have been used for centuries by humans to help with things such as construction, hauling of good, entertainment and even as a military weapon. Elephants have been used to entertain humans for years, with demonstrations of their incredible strengths and impossible agility. I remember seeing old pictures as a child of circus elephants stacked on top of one another and balancing on giant spheres while being cheered on by mass audiences. I grew up watching movies like Dumbo and going to the local zoo to gawk at these gigantic beauties.

I recently came across a video of some elephants that had been taught to paint at a park in Thailand. At first sight I was amazed at what these elephants were doing, it wasn’t just abstract splatter and brush strokes, but fully formed artistic skills portrayed from trunk to canvas. I was in complete awe at the display of intelligence from these giants. Here I am, barely able to text on my iPhone, while this giant mammal is painting its name next to a self-portrait


Wanting to know more, I started to research this miraculous sight. Unfortunately what I found was not as amazing as I had first thought.

When the calves that have been purchased or are born at one of the elephant camps in Thailand turn two years old, they are separated from their mothers and put into training. A Mahout, the Thai equivalent of an elephant trainer, is assigned to one of these calves. They begin to train them to learn commands, perform skills, and of course to paint. It takes about a month for the calve to learn to hold a brush, and about another month to learn to dip the brush into the paint. The camps would like you to believe that the elephants like doing this and are having a great time, yet you never see them painting while roaming the African savannah or in the jungles of Asia.

A conservation organization by the name of Born Free has done a lot more research on the subject and claim that “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.”


Similar to the elephant trekking industry, the elephants have to go through a process known as Phajaan, which is designed to break the elephants spirit and force them to accept human control. The elephants are shackled, starved and beaten. They learn to fear the hooks and nails that will be used to control them in the years to come. Many elephants have not survived this process.


The brushes they use are inserted directly into the elephants nose and fixed with a cross like shape so that the brush doesn’t get lost inside of the trunk. An elephants trunk is extremely sensitive and full of nerve endings. In the wild they will avoid acacia trees because they are known to house ants that will crawl into the trunk and bit them.


During performances of the elephant painting, the Mahout will sometimes leave the giant hook out of the line of site of the audience and instead use a small nail in their hand to press into the ear of the elephant if not performing correctly.

So the next time you see a video of elephants painting, I hope you realize what may really be happening here. Although they are extremely intelligent animals and to be near one or to own a masterpiece by one of these tortured souls would be tempting to anyone, when you purchase a ticket to the show or a canvas for your gallery, you will be funding these camps and furthering their abilities to endanger the lives and happiness of these amazing elephants. With less than 30,000 Asian Elephants left on the planet, we should be cherishing each and every one of them.

-B. Tobiassen


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