60 years an elephant nut and counting!
like a liberal social worker in a penitentiary...Realistic
solutions to the problems facing these animals can only
come when people of good will, tolerant to the opinions
Elephants are magnificent! Their appeal transcends
age and nationality. Such appeal long ago, back in 1946, captured
the heart and soul of a young boy at the San Francisco Zoo with
such intensity that it changed his life.
Richard Lair was only three years old when
he visited the zoo with his parents and saw an elephant for
the first time. “I was hooked.” he explains “I
became an elephant nut. They just seem to have been a part of
my life ever since”. As Advisor and Foreign Relations
Officer for the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (part of the
National Elephant Institute) in Lampang, Thailand, elephants
are still on Richard’s mind, and at the age of 64 he is
still an elephant ‘nut’.
In his earlier days Richard was a pre-med honors
student with scholarship at the University of Washington State,
USA, though he did not see this ‘conventional’ route
as the best for him – so he dropped out and went to Europe
to become a painter.
Richard’s passion for art and music though
could not be separated from his love of elephants. Visitors
to the elephant institute today will see how these passions
have come together in an exciting way – elephants painting!
Wanalee's artistry has been
featured on television and in magazines. Wanalee is
a chubby and charming artist and her paintings are characterized
by a dramatic "sweeping arc" technique.
To view more of her work or
even purchase it please visit the National Geographic NOVICA web site
“It’s actually more like a dance”
Richard explains. “Elephants are color blind and they
do not look at each others paintings – so is it really
art? It’s more like a trunk dance and the paint is a tracing
of the trunk movements”
Trunk dance, or not, the elephant paintings
are popular, and at $300 and up, a great way for the institute
to raise much needed funds for the care of elephants all over
Thailand. “In fact elephant paintings sold at an auction
at Christies in New York in 2000 raised over US$50,000 and featured
in a favorite American television show, 60 Minutes.”
The word trunk for elephants comes from the
French word ‘to trumpet’ and that is what elephants
do to communicate. “You know they really enjoy music more
than painting.” Richard explains “I started off
with the painting because it was easy. As elephants use tools
all the time in wild, sticks for cleaning and leaves for fans,
it was easy to get them to use a paint brush. Music though is
more difficult – but fun!”
The elephant orchestra's first CD gained great
praise from critics and appeared in media as diverse as CBS
Evening News, People magazine, New York Times, The Economist,
and many others. If you would like to listen for yourself please
visit the National
Geographic web site.
As Richard talks about the orchestra he casually
flips through the various publications. One picture jumps out
from the page. Richard is standing in tux in front of the elephant
orchestra conducting. Yet it is not the uniqueness of the elephants
playing music that captures attention. It is Richard’s
smile. He is completely happy and it shows.
Elephant tourist camps that exhibit ‘tricks’
like painting and playing music are not without controversy
and Richard is in the forefront of the debate. “I am interested
in what the elephants do – not what we can make them do.”
After a pause, Richard explains “I am like a liberal social
worker in a penitentiary. Personally, I strongly feel that elephants
should not be kept in captivity. Asian elephants are wild animals
pure and simple. The fact remains though that Thailand has nearly
3,000 elephants in domesticity. Realistically, tourism is the
only way today that elephants can legally make a living.”
The unfortunate alternative to responsible
tourism centers that promote the well-being and preservation
of the Asian elephant can be seen on the streets of Bangkok.
Rich owners rent elephants out to handlers who make money by
selling cucumbers and sugar cane to people wanting to feed the
animals and pose for pictures. These elephants are often not
well looked after and the streets of Bangkok are far from safe
for such large animals.
What are the alternatives and how to solve such difficult problems?
The answers are not easy and the reality is that Thailand’s
population continues to grow placing increasing demands on land
and elephants are expensive to feed. Richard’s chosen
role to help protect the animals he loves is to work with the
National Elephant Institute and raise money for projects such
as the Elephant Hospital and Mobile Veterinary Clinic.
It would be nice for Richard if the world was
as simple as it was when as a three-year old he visited the
zoo for the first time. But that is not the world he lives in
today and there are no simple answers to the future of elephants
in Thailand, yet he remains optimistic. “Realistic solutions
to the problems facing these animals can only come when people
of good will, tolerant to the opinions of others, reflect on
theory — conscience, if you like — but reject it
when it contravenes common sense…. Perhaps the most hopeful
sign is that the Thai public, once blissfully unaware of the
elephant's plight, is now highly motivated in helping to protect
their beloved elephants.” While challenges remain, with
people like Richard on their side the elephants’ future
in Thailand is starting to look brighter.
ABOUT RICHARD LAIR
Richard Lair, from San Francisco, California,
has intensively studied the Asian elephant for 31 years - 27
in Thailand - and is presently Advisor and International Relations
Officer at the National Elephant Institute of Thailand, based
at the Forest Industry Organization's Thai Elephant Conservation
Center, in Lampang province. Initially he was interested only
in wild elephants and thus began his work in Thailand with Dr.
Bonsoong Lekagul at the Association for the Conservation of
Wildlife, the Kingdom's first conservation NGO.
He is a member of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant
Specialist Group (AESG) and wrote Gone Astray: The Care
and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity for
the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
(FAO). He is also the author of The Elephant In Thai Life,
published by Asia Books. His latest publication is (in both
Thai and English editions) a "Care Manual for Mahouts and
Camp Managers", published by FAO, translated into Japanese
with a Lao edition underway. Richard has also translated a S.E.A.
Write award winning novel, "High Banks, Heavy Logs"
from Thai to English.
Last but not least, he is co-founder of the
Thai Elephant Orchestra.
Visitors wishing to find more information, or
to offer assistance,
can visit the following websites:
National Elephant Institute
(Thai Elephant Conservation Center)
ELEPHANTS IN THAILAND:
Glorious past. Challenging future?
by Richard Lair
A NEW HOPE FOR ELEPHANT CONSERVATION
Richard's partner Dave Soldier's website
where CDs of the Elephant Orchestra are sold.
For Homestay bookings.
travel arrangements and educational elephant programs please
by North-East Travel
Tel: +66 (0) 4251 3572
Fax:+66 (0) 4251 3573
e-mail: info@ north-by-north-east.com
Web site: www.north-by-north-east.com