Thai Elephants (Elephas maximus): Asian Elephant Art and Conservation, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid

by DerdriuMarriner

Asian elephants bench-press heavy weights with their trunks. They dance gracefully, lumber quietly, and perform circus acts smoothly. They produce Abstract Expressionist paintings.

Historians associate Asia’s elephants with:
• Carthaginian Commander Hannibal’s (247 B.C. – 183 B.C.) elephant Surus (“The Syrian”) and 37 pachyderms crossing in 218 B.C. modernity’s Basque Pyrenees and French / Italian Pyrenees;
• Pauravan King Porus’s (died 317 B.C.) elephant cavalry battling in 326 B.C. the Hydaspes River along present-day India’s and Pakistan’s Jhelam River.

Choreographers immortalize:
• George Balanchine’s (January 22, 1904 – April 30, 1983) and Igor Stravinsky’s (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971) 50 Circus Polka ballerinas in 1942;
• Rudyard Kipling’s (December 30, 1865 – January 18, 1936) Jungle Book–featured, hill-trembling Kala Nag in 1894.

Theists revere Hinduism’s cloud-creator Airavata and obstacle-remover Ganesha. But will all associations fade if Asian Elephant Art and Conservation projects fail canvas-painting elephants?

Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project
566 Lorimer St. #1FR
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Fax / Telephone: 212.625.0939

Vivid images are evoked via childhood stories of Alexander Great and the elephant cavalry of King Porus of ancient Indian kingdom of Paurava.

"Alexander accepts the surrender of Porus" by André Castaigne (January 7, 1861 - 1929)
"Alexander accepts the surrender of Porus" by André Castaigne (January 7, 1861 - 1929)


Asia’s elephants are one of two surviving -- but threatened -- genera in the otherwise extinct Elephantidae family of trunk- and tusk-equipped elephants and mammoths.  Their common, non-scientific, popular designation definitely comes from the ancient Greek word ἐλέφας (elephas) and possibly derives from the extinct Phoenician language in what is now configured as the West Asian countries of:

  • Israel;
  • Jordan;
  • Lebanon;
  • Syria.

Their binomial (“two-name”), scientific, taxonomic identification draws upon the decision-making in 1758 of Småland-born Swedish nobleman Carl Linnaeus (May 23, 1707 – January 10, 1778), as:

  • Botanist;
  • Ecologist;
  • Physician;
  • Taxonomist;
  • Zoologist.

Its most up-to-date expression is, as the respective genus and species, Elephas maximus, with the Latin adjective translating as “eldest, greatest, largest, oldest, most powerful.”


Borneo elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis): Asian elephant subspecies

PLoS Biology Issue Image | Vol. 1(1) October 2003: Borneo elephants, a genetically distinct taxon native to Borneo.
PLoS Biology Issue Image | Vol. 1(1) October 2003: Borneo elephants, a genetically distinct taxon native to Borneo.


Scientists additionally access trinomial (“three-name”) subdivisions of:

  • Genera into species;
  • Species into subspecies.

They assume that bio-geography prevents subspecies from producing fertile offspring through:

  • Interbreeding;
  • Intra-specifically hybridizing.

They differentiate subspecies by:

  • DNA coding sequences;
  • Morphology (external color, pattern, shape, structure; internal form and structure).

They include as Asia’s extant subspecies:

  • Bornean elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis), per Paulus Edward Pieris Deraniyagala (May 8, 1900 – December 1, 1976), 1950;
  • Indian (E.m. indicus) -- of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Viet Nam -- per Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier (August 23, 1769 – May 13, 1832), 1798;
  • Sri Lankan (E.m. maximus);
  • Sumatran (E.m. sumatranus), per Coenraad Jacob Temminck (March 31, 1778 – January 30, 1858), 1847.


Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus): subspecies of Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)

Yala National Park, southeastern Sri Lanka
Yala National Park, southeastern Sri Lanka


All of Asia’s elephant subspecies find their life cycles and natural histories defined by:

  • Degraded niches within reduced grassland and shrinking dry and moist deciduous, evergreen, and semi-evergreen forest habitats;
  • Environmental pollution of air, land, and water resources;
  • Expanded urban and reduced wildland interfaces;
  • Modern predation by agro-industrialists;
  • People-friendly, wildlife-unfriendly forest corridors;
  • Traditional predation by poachers.

The sustainability of all Asia’s populations unfortunately gets determined therefore by rampant or restricted perceptions of the widespread appeal and usefulness of each subspecies. That perception historically is defined by such societal sectors as:

  • Agro-industry through forest clearances;
  • Entertainment through circus performances;
  • Military through overland campaigns;
  • Religion through Hindu rituals.

It nowadays reflects benefit and cost analyses of elephant net worth.


Blake Dinkin with Black Ivory coffee beans



Four Thailand-linked initiatives contemporaneously advance Asian elephant well-being and worth. Owner/operator Blake Dinkin’s Black Ivory Coffee Co. Ltd. benefits Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation elephant and mahout (trainer) families near Ananatara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort at Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai Province. Government incentives concern:

  • The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s state enterprise, the Forest Industry Organization, operating the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre at Lampang, Chiang Mai Province, since 1993;
  • The Secretariat to the Prime Minister promoting National Elephant Day every March 13th since 1998.

Moscow-born Russian conceptualist artists Vitaly Anatolyevich Komar (born September 11, 1943) and Alexander Melamid (born July 14, 1945) share honors as Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project co-founders in 1998.


Vitaly Komar & Alexander Melamid, Post Art 1973

Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea, central London
Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea, central London


The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project exhibits and sells elephant-realized art at New York’s Endangered Artists Gallery. It functions as a Brooklyn-based 501c3 charity organization by:

  • Developing affordable, non-toxic paints for caretakers, children, and elephants;
  • Educating elephant caretakers and trainers;
  • Establishing conservation agencies against poaching and for wild re-introductions;
  • Funding libraries, schools, sanitation projects, and water works for caretaker and trainer families;
  • Fundraising;
  • Managing elephant-protected wild habitats;
  • Offering veterinary scholarships in pachydermology;
  • Teaching elephants and trainers to paint.

The project honors Moscow-born writer Sergey Vladimirovich Mikhalkov’s (March 13, 1913 – August 27, 2009) fable of 1947 about an elephant’s painting:

  • Cloudless skies for alligators;
  • Leaf-laden, tall trees for walruses;
  • Logs and shrubs for hedgehogs;
  • Mud-baths for pigs.


Vitaly Komar with Dondi: poised for artistry

DUMBO Arts Festival, Brooklyn, New York: September 2007
DUMBO Arts Festival, Brooklyn, New York: September 2007


The project considers precedents in:

  • Captive elephants creating sand-doodles with trunk-held sticks;
  • Elephants painting in Berlin, Germany during the 1930s.

It consults Abstract Expressionism by such North American zoo-confined artists as:

  • Annabelle (1965 – 1997) in Anchorage, Alaska;
  • Kamala in Calgary, Alberta, Canada;
  • Mary in Little Rock, Arkansas;
  • Renee in Toledo, Ohio;
  • Ruby (1973 – 1998) in Phoenix, Arizona;
  • Scarlett O’Hara in Atlanta, Georgia;
  • Siri in Syracuse, New York;
  • Winky in Sacramento, California.

It defers to Alexander’s and Vitaly’s instructional facilitation of:

  • Bird’s and Nom Chok’s anxious, dark green- and violet-marked Dynamism at Ayutthaya Elephant Art Academy;
  • Bok Bak’s cool earth and green Atmospherism at Surin;
  • Lukkang’s, Lukkop’s, and Phratida’s lyrical green and yellow Expressionism / Impressionism at Lampang.


9-year-old Hong's natural curiosity drives her artistry; learning to paint at age 7, she specializes in painting the Thai flag and portraits of elephants with flowers.

Maetaman Elephant Camp, Mae Rim district, central Chiang Mai Province, northern Thailand
Maetaman Elephant Camp, Mae Rim district, central Chiang Mai Province, northern Thailand



Asian elephants are Earth’s second-largest land animals after Africans (Loxodonta spp). They belong on world lists of:

  • Modern descendants of extinct sub-Saharans;
  • Super-endangered animals.

They distinguish themselves physically by:

  • 5 -- not 4 -- and 4 -- not 3 -- nails per respective front and rear feet;
  • Male-only tusks;
  • Rounded, small -- not large, triangular -- ears;
  • Shoulder height 6.57 – 9.84 feet (2 – 3 meters), not 8.20 – 13.12 feet (2.5 – 4 meters);
  • Single -- not double – trunk-end flaps;
  • Weight 4,499.64 – 11,001.07 pounds (2,041 – 4,990 kilograms), not 5,000.08 – 13,999.35 pounds (2,268 – 6,350 kilograms).

Through domestication, they emerge as:

  • Artists;
  • Entertainers;
  • Loggers;
  • Mountaineers;
  • Porters;
  • Warriors.

Their sustainability involves:

  • Elephant-friendly organizational patronage;
  • Environmental education;
  • Government support;
  • Scientific research;
  • Wildlife-loving activism.


Elephant Paya Paints a Self Portrait at Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project

Uploaded to YouTube on April 4, 2008 by elephantartaeacp ~ URL:



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


Baby Raja ~ Afterword: Baby Raja died all alone, chained to a tree, crying out for his mum.

Published on YouTube on June 20, 2013 by Elephant Family ~ URL:



In memory of Raja the Baby Elephant on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra and with respect for Raju the Elderly Elephant in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.


50 years a Slave : Raju the Elephant cried tears of joy after being freed from suffering

Published on YouTube on July 7, 2014 by PatrynWorldLatestNew ~ URL:

Sources Consulted


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George, Dick. 1995. Ruby, The Painting Pachyderm of the Phoenix Zoo. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

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Komar; and Melamid, with Mia Fineman. 2000. When Elephants Paint: The Quest of Two Russian Artists to Save the Elephants of Thailand. Introduction by Dave Eggers. Photographs by Jason Schmidt. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 

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Painting by Hong, represented by Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project

Maetaman Elephant Camp, Mae Rim district, central Chiang Mai Province, northern Thailand
Maetaman Elephant Camp, Mae Rim district, central Chiang Mai Province, northern Thailand
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 05/08/2015, DerdriuMarriner
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Guest on 10/20/2014

Derdriu, The efforts of individuals such as Blake Dinkin of Black Ivory Coffee Company and Vitaly Anatolyevich Komar and Alexander Melamid of Asian Elephant Art & Conservation are awesome. The storied rapport of elephants with people is alive and well in these ventures. Those elephant artists produce charming paintings.

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