Who would have known that the elephant, one of the world's largest and most powerful animals, would also have the dexterity (agility) to hold a paintbrush and paint? It turns out that most elephants have an innate ability to draw and often doodle on the floor with a stick or pebble. A little fine-tuning of these skills has resulted in amazing paintings, which are sold to help conservation of elephants.
It all began about 20 years ago when two Russian painters Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid heard about the plight of domesticated elephants and their owners in Southeast Asia.
There were about 11,000 domesticated elephants that were being used to carry teak (a kind of tree) that was logged from the forests of Thailand. When the logging was banned, these elephants and their owners had no way to sustain themselves and the elephants started to die. Their numbers dwindled to about 3,000. Those that lived, survived by begging or doing circus tricks.
Komar and Melamid decided to see if they could teach elephants to paint. After honing their painting teaching techniques with Renee, an elephant who resided at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio, they made their way to Southeast Asia.
In 2000, they founded the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, a charitable organization, whose website www.elephantart.com, not only talks about conservation efforts, but also sells the work of these amazing artists. The art is also sold at special events held by galleries all over the world. The organization sends 30% of the sale proceeds to the elephant owners and spends the rest on broader elephant conservation projects.
Thanks to these two artists, today Southeast Asia is brimming with elephant "painters". While they are not all tied to the charity, Komar and Melamid are happy to have found them and their owners an alternative way to make a living.