I’m no expert on elephants, but I can confidently say that they were not born to paint.
While most of the other visitors at the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai gasped in amazement at the beautiful works of art these gentle creatures had created, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of uneasiness. If it takes humans many hours of practice just to produce a simple painting, imagine how much “training” these elephants had to go through! A simple search online confirmed my suspicions that the elephant training camps in Chiang Mai are far from nurturing habitats for talented elephants.
National Geographic recently produced a documentary on how these elephants have to go through the process of phajaan, or “crush training”, where baby elephants that are barely 4 months old are removed from their mothers, squeezed into tiny cages, and beaten into submission. In addition, they are also deprived of food and 40% usually end up dying from the ordeal. Reports from tourists on the Lonely Planet forums also reveal that the mahouts ill-treat the elephants by jabbing them in their sensitive inner ear or cutting them with the hook on elephant rides. I saw for myself the hook that these trainers use, and I can assure you that no human will find it acceptable as a tool for “education”.
Hence, I strongly appeal to you not to support this tourist venture. If you really do have a soft spot for elephants, consider visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai instead. You will not get to ride the elephants or see them painting, blowing the harmonica or playing soccer there, but you will be able to see them interacting freely with other elephants and you can even volunteer to bathe or feed them.
Just like we wouldn’t want to be forced to walk with our hands or paint with our toes, let’s try to keep it natural for these animals too.