An award-winning photo of an elephant swimming has reignited a fierce debate on animal welfare in Thailand

elephant swimming thailand

An image of a young elephant performing for an audience while submerged in a tank in Thailand has reignited conversations on the issue of animal welfare. 

Award-winning photo: Taken at Khao Kheow Open Zoo, Australian photojournalist Adam Oswell’s winning entry for the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) award for Photojournalism attracted international attention in October this year, reported CNN

  • The image shows a trainer overseeing an elephant as it performs underwater while a crowd watches and takes photos. 

  • During the award ceremony, WPY host Chris Packham expressed shock while introducing the image, saying, “Asian elephants are being exploited for entertainment, and here we see the audience here gleefully looking at this animal as it performs — it performs — beneath the water. Wholly unacceptable.”
  • Oswell said in his acceptance message that his photo “shows our disconnection with nature and with animals. How we manufacture nature and how we need to really start to consider how we live with nature and with animals and other species because it’s so critical for our future.”

Addressing the elephant in the room: Oswell’s controversial photo, titled “Elephant in the room,” has driven countless people to criticize and address a sensitive topic.

  • While it has been confirmed that elephants are able to swim, several netizens viewed the exhibition as animal exploitation. Oswell’s image earned praise from them, with some calling for the zoo’s closure over alleged animal abuse.
  • According to the photo’s caption on the NHM website, the training for such a performance “usually starts with the removal of a calf from its mother and uses fear and pain-based punishment.”
  • Some Thai people, however, have defended the zoo and accused NHM of misrepresentation.
  • “It’s funny that a picture of elephant swimming in the water to cool down from the freaking heat of tropical country is distorted to be animal abuse,” one commenter wrote. “Please take one more prize from me —> 🏆(Best Misrepresentation Award)”
  • According to veterinarian Visit Arsaithamkul, who works at the zoo, they use positive reinforcement through rewards to train the elephants. 
  • “We don’t use any hooks or any type of force to get the elephants to enter the pool,” the veterinarian said. “We say, ‘It’s feeding time, you get a bucket of bananas,’ and they voluntarily get into the pool.”
  • CNN Travel claims to have “anonymously observed the exhibition from above and below the water in November 2021” and confirmed that an elephant entered the pool without a trainer forcing it to do so. 
  • The government-run Zoological Park Organization of Thailand (ZPO), which operates Khao Kheow, has stated that all their zoos are “guided by the principles of conservation, research, education and recreation.”
  • The South East Asian Zoos Association (SEAZA), which is part of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), has certified Khao Kheow.

Khao Kheow faced similar criticism in 2018 after a video clip of one of its elephant’s water performances emerged online, NextShark previously reported. A United Nations report alleged that trainers in Myanmar and Thailand use cruel methods such as restraining elephants with ropes inside a large cage to teach them basic commands.

Featured Image via Mirasol Papas

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