Elephants and Mahouts Thailand Photography Project
A cultural history and conservation project
By Carol Stevenson in partnership with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation
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The Asian elephant is an endangered species. In Thailand, the numbers have collapsed from an estimated 100,000 in 1850 to 2,500 today. Half of the elephants in Thailand are classed as domesticated (defined as under human provisioning and control) and the rest are wild. Rapid deforestation and government bans on the traditional use of elephants in logging and transportation have increased the threat to the current elephant population. The logging ban hasleft the elephant owners (mahouts) with few options to make a living to provide for both their family and their elephant (an adult elephant eats as much as 600lbs of food a day and needs 200 litres of water). The Mahout tradition and the Mahout community are an irreplaceable living cultural treasure.
Being a Mahout is an age old way of life, originating in tribal tradition and now passed from generation to generation within families. The symbiosis of elephant and Mahout is virtually unique in Human/Animal relations. Mahouts typically bond with the elephants for life, and the mahout family are all involved in providing the care needed to keep the elephant.
While the wild elephant is classified as an endangered species, the domesticated elephant is not. Consequently there are no laws governing how an elephant can be treated, or extending protections or assistance to the unique Mahout and Elephant culture.
Feeding an elephant is expensive. Mahouts have resorted to begging for food and money on the streets in the large cities to feed themselves and their elephants. In desperation, many mahouts are driven to buy and sell their elephants to make enough money to feed their families.
Sometimes the mahouts have taken out loans to buy the elephant. Baby elephants are the most vulnerable, since they have a high earning potential (cute tourist photos) and lower costs to ‘run’. Baby elephants are too often taken from their mothers and often do not survive. The heartbreak of the mother elephant at separation is obvious. Being on the city streets is highly dangerous to the elephants – many are injured from accidents with cars, develop serious feet infections from constantly being walked through the cities and are
badly malnourished from lack of food.
The Elephant Foundation
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) is an elephant camp located in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. The foundation works closely with national conservation and government organizations to provide an alternative means for the elephant and its Mahout family to earn a living, and is a part of a strong network of Thai conservation efforts to research best practices to maintain the species and the culture.
There are currently 29 elephants in Chiang Rai and 5 elephants at an associated camp in Lampang. There are two hotels located near the camp which provide some sponsorship, but importantly are a catchment source for tourists seeking to have a unique interaction with the elephants. The Foundation conducts outreach to mahouts, but it is the mahout’s decision to join the program and relocate to Chang Rai. The Mahout continues to have an ownership and stewardship role with his or her elephant. The foundation provides a sustainable environment for both man and elephant by:
• Providing food/veterinary care for the elephant, and best management practice models
• Providing employment for the Mahout (and the elephant) in the ecotourism industry
• Providing schooling and health care for the children of the mahouts
• Providing opportunities for the Mahout’s family to supplement their income by making and selling art and crafts.
The Photography Project
The project was conceived as a five-year process documenting the evolving elephant community and the Mahout way of life. I have been given exclusive access to the elephant camp by the Chairman of GTAEF, and plan on two visits a year to document the evolving family. The images will be used to underpin both an educational program to raise awareness of the threat to the Elephants and Mahouts, and as a fundraising vehicle via international exhibitions and print sales, and the production of fine art books. Specifically:
• Showcase the plight of the Asian Elephant and the unique Mahout community in order to effect change (e.g. improved conservation programs and increase pressure to bring about new protection laws)
• Create a visual documentary of the Asian elephant species for conservation purposes. The images will be used as the basis for telling the elephants’ and the mahouts’ story providing a platform for educating people on the issue and showing the beauty of the unique Asian elephant.
• Use the imagery to raise substantial funds to support bringing more elephants off the
streets and into the Foundation.
The Photographic Collection
In 2009-2010, an initial limited edition series of elephant portraiture entitled Elephants & Mahouts has been produced and the editioned prints are now sold in 4 hotels in Thailand with all proceeds benefiting the elephant foundation. In the 6 months of the photographic project has raised in excess of $12,000.
In subsequent years, the initial body of work will be augmented to document new arrivals and provide a continuous photographic record of the evolving elephant family. The series will be used as the basis for a series of local and international exhibitions and a fine art book. New sets of limited editions and revised editions of the book will be designed to drive revenue for the Foundation.
The Elephants & Mahouts Series is broken into three categories:
• A distinctive close up set of images of the unique body characteristics of the Asian elephant where a different feature and/or angle of each elephant is shown resulting in a complete visual documentary of the animals.
• Portraiture of mahouts with their elephants, capturing the unique relationship between human and animal
• Unique elephant community such as the Khru Ba Yai from the Kui tribe (Elephant Spirit Men) and mahout traditions such as their tattoos and elephant handling tools.
A series of 50 exhibition quality prints up to 4×5 feet will be produced.
Three phases of exhibitions are envisaged – firstly across Thailand, expanding to other Asian countries and subsequently to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris and Sydney.
The exhibitions are contingent on funding and during the early part of 2011, potential sponsoring partners will be approached. In the first phase the series will be displayed by the sponsoring hotel groups, the Anantara and the Four Seasons. Both the Four Seasons and the Anantara have committed to show the exhibition in their flagship properties in Thailand, and have further agreed to take the exhibition to other hotels across Asia Pacific. Both groups have made this offer contingent on the project receiving funding. There are 9 hotels available to take the exhibition in Thailand.
William Heinecke, Chairman of Minor Group (owner of the Thailand Four Seasons group,
Anantara and Marriott Thailand Group), has committed to putting a book with the Elephants & Mahouts series into each one of his hotel rooms.
A documentary film is in plan subject to initial fundraising to cover trip costs, that will tell a story that has never before been told. The film will follow three characters; a mahout who bonds with an elephant for life, one of the five remaining Elephant spiritual men left who were the first monks to bring Thai elephants into work and everyday Thai life, and a baby Elephant who’s future is uncertain. In this way the film will show the full range of history, present, and future for Thai elephants. The film will be used at awareness events showcasing the photographs and current situation of Thai elephants. The film will also be shown at film festivals throughout the world, a self-distributed theatrical release, and online outlets such as; iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon.
A dedicated Elephants & Mahouts website is online, showcasing the collection at
www.elephanteditions.com and facebook as “Elephant Photographer”
To-date the project has been self-funded and has not received any financial sponsorship.
Future efforts will include grant applications and a plan for financial sponsorship to cover travel and living costs. The project is gaining awareness from some key organizations.
Nikon USA is featuring the project on their website as one of their Learn & Explore Mentors series
Camera bag manufacturer, has selected the work to be featured as one of their 2011 Featured Photographers, and will give major marketing promotion of the project in 2011.
Luxury lifestyle and equestrian magazine has featured the work twice and donates an advertising page for the print collection each quarter.
Ongoing donation of the dedicated website
LightSource, San Francisco
Master printmaker, Sam Hoffman produces the museum quality prints at cost.
Friends of Conservation (FOC)
The non-profit arm of Abercrombie & Kent transfers print sales funds to the Foundation.
The next phase of the project is to photograph the first birth of a boy since the project began in 2009 and to interview, photograph and film the last five remaining Elephant Spirit Men from the Kui tribe together with an anthropologist and the Foundation, providing the only known biography of these men and their tribe. I will also continue to expand on documenting the mahout community.
As a key goal is to raise awareness of the elephant’s situation, I intend to partner withconservation and government groups in Thailand to deliver broad outreach channels. To this end I have produced an educational presentation supported by the elephant photographs, as both a tool to gain support from these organizations, and then for the organizations themselves to use in raising community awareness. The GTAEF itself partners will multiple groups and I will use their network extensively. Organizations include the Thailand National Elephant Institute (actively supported by the Thai Royal Family, Princess Galyani) and the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (Government agency).
As part of the awareness campaign, LA Zoo has asked me to be a guest lecturer in 2011.
To continue the project, I am now seeking funding for travel and lodging expenses to bring a leading conservation filmmaker, Tim Kelly from Fridays Films, San Francisco to Thailand to produce a conservation video to create awareness and be used educated the general public around the world as to the critical need to conserve the Asian elephant. The film will document not only the elephants but include filming of the remaining Elephant Spirit Men and interviews with the mahouts. This will be a cornerstone of the 2011 awareness phase. Tim Kelly of Fridays Films is offering to donating 2 weeks of his time, approximately a $20,000 value if we can generate funding to cover his trip costs. I am also seeking funding to produce the first exhibition and book production costs, exhibition shipping costs together with additional supporting expenses to cover the next phases for personalexpenses of travel, lodging etc.
To date, all expenses incurred have been self-funded in airfares, hotel costs, print production and other expenses. A breakdown of costs to support the project in the first visit of 2011 is attached below.
Carol Stevenson, September 2010
Project Site: http://www.elephanteditions.com
Professional Site: http://www.carolstevenson.com
Elephants & Mahouts Project
Breakdown of Project Costs
Filmmaker Costs (January 2011)
Air ticket for Videographer, San Francisco – Thailand $2100
Internal flights & transport in Thailand $500
Cost of 10 days subsidized lodgings & food for filmmaker $1500
Video Post Production Costs
Carol Stevenson Photographer Costs
Air ticket for January Visit Used air miles
Cost of 21 days of subsidized lodgings & food
Total funding sought $12,250
Print Offerings for Donors
For donors offering financial support, I will offer a range of prints of the elephant portraits
For contributions of $100 or more, the donor will receive a 8×10 signed print
For contributions of $500 or more, the donor will receive a 12×18 signed print
For contributions of $750 or more, the donor will receive a 20×30 editioned/ signed print