The Elephant's Current Plight

Hello.  My name is David Ferris.  For those of you I do not know, I am the Director of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project (AEACP).  We are a fully functioning charity organization based out of New York City.  Our main purpose is to raise money and awareness for the elephants of Southeast Asia.  I recently followed up with our elephants, spending the month of March visiting with the mahouts, the artists, both elephant and human, and checking up on camp conditions.  It was a much needed and very successful trip.  I would like to share some of my experiences and observations with you so as to serve as an update on our ‘member camps’ and on the elephants themselves. 

Some may ask why we help Asian and not African Elephants.  The answer simply has to do with circumstances.  In Africa, the elephants are not endangered and live out there lives in the wild, if not the wild at least in semi-wild protected reserves.  There is still quite a lot of natural habitat remaining in Africa when compared with Asia, where there is little to none left.  Asian Elephants are currently on the endangered list, but vary with other endangered animals in that a large majority of the Asian Elephants remaining are domesticated and have been for quite some time.

All over the world, people want to see animals of all kinds roaming free within their natural habitat, as would we, but the reality of our circumstances is not so.  Asian Elephants, for instance, were employed in logging the lush teak forests of Thailand and its neighboring countries for many years.   This was until approximately 98% of the forests were completely gone.  The Thai government eventually banned logging in 1990 in an effort to save what little forest was left.  Although the ban was very much needed, it left thousands of domesticated elephants and their mahouts (caretakers) unemployed.  Also, as sad and ironic as it seems, the elephants helped us destroy their own habitat within Thailand, thus leaving them with no wild to return to.  Similar situations are occurring all across Southeast Asia, most acutely at the moment in Cambodia and on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  It is in these places that the elephants’ natural habitat continues to disappear due to continued, often illegal logging practices, to the encroachment of slash and burn farmers, and due to that hot topic of the moment – climate change.

The reality of all this means that for Asian Elephants to survive, we must find ways to coexist, to live together on this planet.  Throughout the history of SE Asia and indeed much of the world, the practice of mahoutship and elephant domesticity, or captivity has a long rich past.  For many years, elephants were used in battle between warring factions and dynasties in Asia as well as during Roman times in Europe and the Middle East.  In fact some of the elephants at the Ayutthaya Royal Elephant Kraal in Thailand were used in the film Alexander, which depicts some of these battles.  In addition to being living tanks in battle, they were used as beasts of burden much like ox or horses in farming and logging.

Despite having to work, the elephants maintained a high level of respect and worship.  They were considered god-like in India, where the Hindu God, Ganesh, with the head of an elephant and the body of a man, was universally revered.  In Thailand, the elephant is the national symbol and can be seen everywhere you look; on buildings, as statues, on beer cans, and until recently, their national flag.

The AEACP has been working toward helping this revered creature whose historically unique relationship with people is being lost and forgotten.  After the ban on logging left so many of the elephants and their mahouts out of work, the question became, what to do with all these elephants, and for the mahouts whose lives have been spent with these animals, how do they now earn a living.  Unfortunately, as mahouts became desperate for work, some began taking their elephants into major cities around the country to beg for food and money, others became involved in the illegal logging trade that sprung up after the ban.  The illegal logging trade, which is still a significant problem in places like Sumatra, is very dangerous, and elephants are often fed amphetamines to make them work longer, harder, and faster.

Obviously neither of these paths are healthy or sustainable, but another opportunity for employment sprung up in the void left by logging – tourism.  Tourism makes up an enormous percentage of many Southeast Asian countries income per year.  In Thailand, you can find elephant tourist camps just about everywhere you go.  Some are basic small operations with five to ten elephants that give rides to tourists through jungle paths, also known as trekking.  Others are giant operations that employ up to 90 elephants at a time.  These camps may focus on trekking as well, but some also feature performances, such as examples of how they were used logging, fun little games and tricks that they can do, and a most recent edition; painting sessions.  Painting programs seem to have sprung up all over Thailand these days.  The AEACP is not affiliated with all of the camps but we are excited to see how the idea has spread the way it has.

The tourism industry is not innately good or bad.  When looked at practically, what it comes down to is that the elephants have to, in a sense, earn their keep somehow, so as long as they are well taken care of, giving rides to tourists is not too difficult for them considering their past employment.  Personally, I am not too keen on some of the elephant performances in which they do circus-type tricks, but many people do seem to enjoy them.  All in all, it is my belief that of most importance is whether or not the elephants are well taken care of.  Ideally of course, the elephants would roam free across the open plains, but global circumstances being what they are, we are forced to deal with the reality of the situation.  The care for the elephants is very much dependant on the owner and the elephant’s mahout.  Some camps that I have visited, proper care is still being worked toward, while at others, despite having to work during the day, the elephants lead very happy rewarding lives.  We do not support any camps that tolerate abuse of their elephants.  This is clearly defined in the contracts that we maintain with each camp or center that we work with and conditions are evaluated annually.

Nevertheless, the AEACP was originally created as an alternative to illegal logging, to begging on city streets, or having to perform circus tricks.  The very core concept of the project is to provide a way for an elephant to earn a living as an artist.  Painting an hour a day after bathing, eating, and relaxing doesn’t sound like a bad life to any of us I’m sure.  Speaking of which, we are not yet taking human applicants but we will be sure to put you on the waiting list : )  One of our immediate goals is to provide as many elephants as we can with a happy, healthy, enriched existence.  Each camp and elephant that we work with does have their own unique circumstances and in reality, most domesticated elephants today exist within this realm of tourism driven camps.  There are exceptions to this as seen in the Phnom Tamao Rescue Center in Cambodia but for the most part elephants and mahouts need to be fed, and it is tourism that has proven to be the greatest source of income for most elephant owners and caretakers.

For those of you whom have read the unfortunately now out-of-print, When Elephants Paint, I hope this essay serves as a continuation or update on the situation elephants throughout Southeast Asia faced at the time that the book was written.  For those of you new to the project and the elephant art movement, I hope this passage helps bring the reality of the elephants situation and the plight that they are facing better into focus for you.

Thank you for your time and support.
David Ferris, Executive Director


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