For centuries elephants in Thailand have been revered as a national symbol, worshiped as living gods and employed as beasts of burden in the nation’s thriving timber industry. But when logging was banned in Thailand in 1990, these noble animals fell on hard times. Reduced to performing tricks for tourists by day, illegal heavy labor by night, and even begging for handouts on city streets, Thailand’s elephants were exhausted, malnourished, and dying in alarming numbers.
Responding to this crisis, the renowned artists Komar and Melamid introduced an innovative program to create a safe and creative alternative source of income for unemployed elephants: the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project. Their project retrained these elephants to hold brushes in their trunks and apply paint to canvas, generating funds to provide proper care for the elephants and support for their trainers. These unique paintings raise public awareness through worldwide elephant art exhibitions, lectures, and auctions that showcase the plight of domesticated elephants and wild elephants facing extinction.
“Soiselee” is a 7-year old elephant living at the Ayutthaya Royal Elephant Kraal and Village. Ewa Narkiewicz and Michelle Reedy oversee the painting program at the Kraal, where Soiselee and her mahout were trained and given a new source of income. In 2015, I was privileged to witness a painting session with their young protégé, and it was abundantly clear what wonderful enrichment, both sensual and soulful, painting is for these amazing creatures.
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