Is it true that elephants are artists? Can they really paint pictures of flowers, trees and even other elephants? Are they the only animals on Earth, apart from human beings, that can create pictorial images?
Last summer my friend, the scientist Richard Dawkins, asked me to look at a video clip on the internet, taken in Thailand, that showed a young female elephant called Hong painting a picture of an elephant running along, holding a flower in its trunk. He wanted to know if I thought it was a fake.
The internet is notoriously awash with fakes of one kind or another, but this particular video appeared to be genuine. I could hardly believe my eyes as the elephant with a paintbrush inserted in the tip of its trunk started to place lines on a large white card.
A nose for art: Elephants like this one have been trained to paint in northern Thailand
Slowly, without anyone touching the animal’s trunk, the image emerged. And it was an elegant image, too, something a human artist would not be ashamed of.
From time to time, the elephant’s keeper, or mahout, took an empty brush and replaced it with a loaded one, but that was apparently the only form of human intervention.
I was amazed and puzzled by what I saw and decided that I really must find out more. Back in the Fifties I had myself made a serious study of the artistic abilities of chimpanzees, but they had never achieved anything like this.
My favourite chimp, called Congo, had shown remarkable abilities, creating favourite patterns of lines and then varying them from picture to picture. But all his paintings were abstract compositions. He never managed to produce a recognisable pictorial image. He had a creative ability because I never influenced the position of his lines and he himself made all the decisions about where each mark should go.
He balanced his patterns and, over a long period of time, he made them more complicated, showing he contained within his brain the first germ of artistic creativity.
It may have been primitive, but it was there. I was witnessing what amounted to the birth of art. If elephants could really paint flowers and trees, then they were, of course, in a different league.
But I had a nasty feeling there was a catch in it somewhere, so when I was visiting Thailand this year I decided to find out the truth. I knew that Hong was living at an elephant conservation centre up in the far north of the country and that I would not have time to reach it during my brief stay.
Seeking the truth: Desmond Morris
But inquiries revealed there are now at least six elephant centres in Thailand where painting is done. One of them, at Nong Nooch, was near enough for a brief visit.
These centres originally developed because, 20 years ago, logging by elephants was outlawed in Thailand and all the domesticated elephants suddenly found themselves out of work. Their future looked bleak and there was no hope of returning them to the wild.
Then someone had the bright idea of setting up elephant sanctuaries where the animals could be shown to visitors for a small fee. Out of this grew staged performances and, about eight years ago, the painting sessions.
The centre I was visiting, the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, is a large recreation park nine miles from the thriving seaside resort of Pattaya. In addition to its exotic tropical gardens and orchid nursery, it boasts an impressive theatre where Thai boxing and highly sophisticated local folklore shows are performed.
Next to this theatre there is a large, square arena for the daily elephant displays. These displays, it turned out, are far too reminiscent of old-fashioned circus acts, but they do differ in two important respects.
First, each animal has its own personal keeper, whose whole life is devoted to his particular elephant.
Second, much of the performance is designed to make the audience marvel at the skills of the elephants, rather than laugh at them as overgrown clowns.
As part of the elephant show, I was able to watch three young female elephants painting pictures of botanical subjects and see for myself exactly how it was done.
So are these endearing mammals truly artistic? The answer, as politicians are fond of saying, is yes and no.
Let me describe exactly what happens. A painting session begins with three heavy easels being wheeled into position. On each easel a large piece of white card (30in x 20in) has been fixed underneath a strong wooden frame.
Each elephant is positioned in front of her easel and is given a brush loaded with paint by her mahout. He pushes the brush gently into the end of her trunk.
Crowd pleasers: Tourists gasp as the animals paint detailed pictures in front of their eyes
The man then stands to one side of his animal’s neck and watches intently as the brush starts to make lines on the card. Then the empty brush is replaced by another loaded one, and the painting continues until the picture is complete.
The elephant then turns towards its audience, bows deeply and is rewarded with bananas.
The paintings are then removed from their frames and offered for sale. They are quickly snapped up by people who have been astonished by what they have just witnessed.
To most of the members of the audience, what they have seen appears to be almost miraculous. Elephants must surely be almost human in intelligence if they can paint pictures of flowers and trees in this way. What the audience overlooks are the actions of the mahouts as their animals are at work.
This oversight is understandable because it is difficult to drag your eyes away from the brushes that are making the lines and spots. However, if you do so, you will notice that, with each mark, the mahout tugs at his elephant’s ear.
He nudges it up and down to get the animal to make a vertical line, or pulls it sideways to get a horizontal one. To encourage spots and blobs he tugs the ear forward, towards the canvas. So, very sadly, the design the elephant is making is not hers but his. There is no elephantine invention, no creativity, just slavish copying.
Investigating further, after the show is over, it emerges that each of the socalled artistic animals always produces exactly the same image, time after time, day after day, and week after week. Mook always paints a bunch of flowers, Christmas always does a tree, and Pimtong a climbing plant. Each elephant works to a set routine, guided by her master.
Elegant: A painting of an elephant by Hong the elephant
TheCan inevitable conclusion, therefore, is that elephants are not artists. Unlike the chimpanzees, they do not explore new patterns or vary the design of their work themselves. Superficially, they do appear to be more advanced, but it is all a trick.
Having said this, what an amazingly clever trick it is! No human hand touches the animal’s trunk. The brain of the elephant has to translate the tiny nudges she feels on her ear into attractive lines and blobs.
And she has to place these marks on the white surface with great precision. This requires considerable intelligence and a muscular sensitivity that is truly extraordinary.
So all is not lost. We can still marvel at the paintings these animals make, even if their skill is to do with muscle control rather than artistic ability.
Perhaps one day, a more scientific approach will be applied to elephant painting and one of these animals will be allowed to express itself spontaneously and perhaps start making new images of her own devising, and varying them at will. If that happens, we will have to think seriously about opening an elephant art gallery.
Although only three elephants at Nong Nooch paint pictures, there are 16 others there that perform other remarkable feats. To give just one example, two of them are able to rear up and throw a large dart through the air with breathtaking accuracy.
The dart is placed in the tip of the trunk, they then tilt their head right back, take slow and careful aim, and fling the dart at a distant archery target that is covered with balloons. The target is about 60ft away, and with its first shot, the elephant I was watching burst the balloon that was in the bull’s eye position.
In the wild, no elephant is ever required to make a trunk movement of this kind, or with such accuracy, so what is being witnessed here is an impressive learning ability on the part of these enormous mammals.
And although playing darts is a human activity the elephants are mimicking, there is nothing demeaning in the act. It does not make the elephants look like clowns, but rather reveals to us their muscular brilliance and adaptability.
Unfortunately, not all the performances in the Nooch elephant show are demonstrations that increase our respect for elephants. An elephant riding a tricycle, for instance, may be clever, but it appears ridiculous.
Instead of looking magnificent, the animal looks silly. The organisers of Thai elephant shows do not seem to have caught up with the change in attitude towards performing animals that has swept through the western world in recent years.
As a zoologist, I have to admit that I deplore comic acts of this kind, acts that do little more than exploit the cooperative nature of these huge mammals. If they wished to do so, they could easily kill their mahouts with a single blow, but for some reason they seem content to play along and entertain their audiences. It is up to the designers of these shows, in the future, to become sensitive to the fine line between a vulgar circus act that demeans the animals, and a serious demonstration of skill and intelligence that increases our admiration for them.
Trained: Are elephants really skilled painters, or are their keepers just con artists
With a little ingenuity, it should be possible to present a whole elephant show that does nothing but amplify the high regard that we now have for these extraordinary animals.
As I mentioned, one of the most remarkable aspects of elephant behaviour is just how helpful they are. And I am extremely grateful to them for their level of co-operation. Organisers of the Nong Nooch elephant show discovered that I was there to make a special study of them and asked if I would like to participate in the finale of the show.
I declined, but they insisted that I would not have to do anything, just lie on the ground and let one of the elephants give me a massage.
It crossed my mind that, if I did agree, here was a test in which, if anyone was going to look silly, it would be me rather than the elephant. And I would be helping to demonstrate to the audience just how restrained and delicate the giant animal could be. After all, a massage performed poorly by an elephant’s foot could see me ending up in intensive care in a Thai hospital.
An Englishman abroad hates to look like a coward in such situations, so I allowed myself to be taken into the centre of the arena, where I was instructed to lie down on a piece of matting. A large cloth was draped over me to protect my clothing and out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the largest elephants approaching with what I swear was an eager gleam in her eye.
She proceeded to give me my massage, first with her trunk and then with one of her front feet.
I experienced what hospitals euphemistically call ‘a certain amount of discomfort’, because gentle as the elephant was, bless her, she was being encouraged by her mahout to overdo the massage in order to amuse the audience. It was at this point that I became acutely aware of the subtle distinction between hamming it up for circus laughs and the scientific demonstration of an elephant’s true capacity to restrain itself from squashing a large Englishman beneath her foot.
Before I allow myself to get involved again, I think I will await the hopedfor evolution of these Thai elephant shows into a more scientifically controlled demonstration.