Newsletter Article

Richard Lair
60 years an elephant nut and counting!

“I am 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 of others..."

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.


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)

Glorious past. Challenging future?
by Richard Lair

Richard's partner Dave Soldier's website
where CDs of the Elephant Orchestra are sold.
For Homestay bookings.

For personalized travel arrangements and educational elephant programs please contact:

North by North-East Travel
Tel: +66 (0) 4251 3572
Fax:+66 (0) 4251 3573
e-mail: info@
Web site:

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