In 2010, whilst living and working at the Makhampom Art Space in Northern Thailand, the metaphorical elephant in the room became somewhat literal due to an unusual event.
To give this some context, the Makhampom Art Space was developed a decade earlier by the Makhampom Theatre Group as a co-working space hosting intersecting performance, education, and community theatre activities within a social enterprise framework. It was also a living community, home to my family and sitting within an idyllic landscape in the tail end of the Himalayas.
The Makhampom Art Space had emerged as a successful social enterprise organisation, hosting a diversity of theatre, community engagement, and educational programs. The organisation, having developed as an arts collective, worked with a group-defined ethical framework and the income generated through these hosted programs sustained Makhampom’s practice and allowed community partnerships to be facilitated independent of funding constraints.
When the Thai subsidiary of a German advertising firm approached Makhampom to use our rice-field, theatre building, and unsealed road to film footage for a 3G commercial, we accepted the request with a degree of caution, as they intended to bring a dozen vans, an extensive crew, a tripod installation in the rice-field, and …… an elephant.
When we opened the Makhampom Art Space as a social enterprise venue we didn’t imagine we would be hosting elephants, although we were regularly exposed to issues of elephant tourism and conservation as northern Thailand is the heartland of the population. Much of Thailand’s elephant population is domesticated and the ‘The Elephant and Ivory Trade in Thailand’ Traffic Southeast Asia Report traces this back to their use in warfare in the Sukhothai era of the 13th century and more significantly into the logging industry resulting in over 100,000 domesticated elephants a century ago.
There is a universality in the appeal of the elephant. In Thailand and throughout parts of Southeast Asia the identification with the elephant has drawn on its spiritual and religious significance, taking on a national symbolism or even sacredness. Certainly, there is an international mystique conferred upon the elephant. Is it due to being the largest living land animal? Is it their unique shape? Or their combination of strength, wisdom, and intelligence?
There is evidence that suggests that elephants are the only land animal apart from humans that can cry, they help other animals in trouble, and they mourn for their dead. Their heightened senses allow them to smell water miles away, to smell the difference between human groups, and to distinguish between different languages. Sadly, there is also evidence that, despite having historically evolved with no natural predators, the elephant has undertaken evolutionary change through its recent interaction with humans.
In the article, Can elephants and humans live together?, Tarsh Thekaekara outlines the increase of human-elephant conflict, defined by competing access to dwindling natural resources. Although elephant aggression is commonplace for males during mating season, or musth, it is also suggested that targeted attacks on humans are a new precedent, with cases of revenge being increasingly reported.
In Thailand, elephant attacks on tourists are an annual occurrence, often linked to abusive practices despite a degree of reverence given to the elephant as the official national animal of Thailand. The circumstances of the country’s elephant population has become increasingly uncertain due to the various impacts of modernisation. Human population growth, the clearing of habitat, ivory poaching, and their domestication, predominantly for tourism, have collectively decimated Thailand’s wild elephant populations to endangered levels numbering in the thousands, outnumbered by the domesticated populations.
When the logging industry was banned in Thailand in 1989, the impoverishment of both elephant and mahout became an immediate problem. And it was in this context that elephant tourism emerged as an alternative, operating at the nexus of conservation and exploitation. An element of the exploitation involves the recruitment of migrant workers, predominantly from Myanmar, as mahouts. The often unsafe working conditions, low wages, and insecure tenure are balanced against the work opportunities provided by an industry that is culturally grounded in ethnic minority traditions.
Without understanding the history of the relationship between mahout and elephant visiting our Art Space, we made assumptions that this venture would help sustain the upkeep of both elephant and mahout. At our Art Space in Chiang Dao, we spent hours watching the elephant eat its way through many of our plants and trees, to meet its estimated daily 250kg intake with many local villagers wandering over to see our unexpected guest. And as romantic as it was that we had an elephant stay at our Art Space (the tree she loved to rub against is still bent today as a result), the ethical question as to whether she should have been there in the first place remained.
And this question returns us to the elephant in the room, that this form of tourism or creative enterprise is predicated on the sustainability of an uncertain industry, which at an existential level invokes the survival of an endangered species. The metaphor of the elephant in the room almost carries an irony when we consider the lack of room for elephants in our world today.