Who Says Elephants Can’t Paint? (2 videos )

Maybe youíve seen one of the amazing videos of elephants painting in Thailand. Itís quite a tourist attraction. The two videos, on pages 1 and 2 tell the story from a couple of vantage points, and on page 3 Desmond Morris gives his point of view

In this video, watch as Hong, the star elephant at the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, paints a self portrait. Or does she?

The project was started as a way to support elephants which have found themselves out of work after the banning of logging in Thailand. The skills of Hong would seem to show that elephants, which were already thought to be very smart, truly are quite remarkable.

But are they really creating a work of art? If you look carefully youíll notice that the elephantís trainer is always standing beside her as she paints, guiding her movements. Maybe it’s a bit of a trick, then, but it’s amazing and fun to watch, and keeps the elephants fed and happy.

Moreover it turns out that elephants actually like to paint, and will do so without prompting, once the technique has been demonstrated to them. They have been painting for years, all over the world, and many zoos help support their elephant populations through sales of their paintings.

Next up, on page 2, you’ll see another video featuring Hong and a London art teacher who compares her to Matisse.Photo credit: Alex Valavanis

In this video Vanda Harvey, a London art teacher, goes to Thailand to observe the elephant painters for herself and she comments on the wonderful work Hong the elephant is doing, comparing her to Matisse.

Can Hong leave her day job entertaining tourists and put her work into a London Gallery? Weíre told that elephants are very intelligent and their trunks have more than 40,000 muscles and they have the equivalent of an opposing thumb which enables them to hold a brush and paint a picture. Pretty impressive, donít you think?

Well, maybe Vanda Harvey, for all her expertise as an artist, was conned. For an ‘expert’ point of view go to page 3.

Photo credit: playroughde

Naturalist Desmond Morris, who has studied chimpanzee artists, had his doubts about elephant painters. So he too went to Thailand to see how it was really done.

He reports that there are at least six centers with elephants who do this. Each elephant has his own mahout who trains and cares for him from childhood. While the elephant is painting the mahout stands beside him and tugs on his ear telling him to go up, down, sideways, etc.

So is it really the elephant or the mahout who is the painter?

Whatever the answer it is still pretty impressive that the elephant can translate these tugs into a recognizable picture.

Photo credit: pontman

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lieve d.
lieve d.1 months ago

I cannot believe that Care2 is promoting elephant painting, this is utterly cruel, have a look below how an elephant is trained to paint


Lauren C.
Lauren K.about a year ago


LMj Sunshine

Interesting, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Interesting, thank you.

Kitty Courtney
Kitty Courtney4 years ago

So, here is the REAL QUESTION - are you interested in the welfare of these elephants or just interested in promoting these camps where rich people can go and 'Oooh' and Ahhh' and what quaintly intelligent animals these elephants are and buy a painting supposedly made by an elephant to take home so that they can show it off to their friends and brag about the 'safari trip' they went on, or...are you interested in making a genuine contribution that would make the lifes of elephants better: If it is the latter, go to www.elephantnaturepark.org and see how you can take a trip to Lek Chailert's Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and really do something important for Asian elephants in Thailand. Can't affort a trip to Lek's Nature Park, well Lek has lots of alternative ways you can help, sponsor an elephant, buy an elephant lunch, buy a medical kit, you can even shop in her gift shop (you can in fact buy a painting of an elephant - not by an elephant by a wonderful human artist) and many other ways to support her work. And/or, go to www.elephantaidinternational.org and support Carol Buckley's work in establishing sanctuaries for African, Asian and Indian elephants, education of mahouts in the proper care of elephants, and so much more. Please don't visit or promote these elephant painting camps, there are much, much, much better ways to really help elephants.

Kitty Courtney
Kitty Courtney4 years ago

These statements, "So is it really the elephant or the mahout who paints the picture?" "Whatever the answer it is still pretty impressive that the elephant can translate these tugs into a recognizable picture." are the very definition of speciesism. Speciesism is discrimination in favor of one species over another, especially of the human species in the exploitation of animals. The question is not "So is it the elephant or the mahout who paints the picture?" but, why should we be making a non-human animal, especially the world's largest and most emotionally evolved such as an elephant, paint pictures for tourists to buy and put over the sofa in their living rooms????

Kitty Courtney
Kitty Courtney4 years ago

Carole Buckley, the former CEO of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN is now is Asia, including Thailand addressing this very situation. She is adamantly opposed to 'teaching' elephants to paint as it still includes pha jaan and using domination and fear to force them to paint. I didn't say they couldn't paint so much as they shouldn't be made to do it. No baby elephant wants to be forced to do stupid stunts to entertain humans. And, yes there are better alternatives. There are sanctuaries where these elephants could live as free and natural life as any elephant who has been captive.

Pam F.
Pam F.4 years ago

How baby elephants are "trained" for captivity" - read it if you can bear to!

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin4 years ago

Which is more cruel: Having an electric shock rod pushed up your behind to force you to do work for humans or having a trainer teach you how to paint?

liz j.
liz j.5 years ago

Unfortunately I don't have an answer to what to do with an elephant that is no longer required in the logging industry. It is for sure that they won't be allowed to merely roam. As these elephants die then perhaps this painting thingt will be allowed to die out. BUT other means of these Mahouts earning a living will need to be found and considered. As to art experts! When this documentary was shown on Brit tely last year, many people walked around the art gallery that the paintings were shown in oohhing and aghhhhing and buying these paintings.. When eventually they were told they were painted by elephants, I bet they felt pretty dumb... Whose the dumb animal??