An elephant painting a picture of an elephant

An elephant paints at the Maetaman Elephant camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Elephant entertainment is common in elephant camps like this, and many communities learn to rely on the stream of income it creates. (Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

Chances are you've seen one of the many videos of an elephant grabbing a paintbrush, dipping it in paint, and producing a painting similar to something a 5-year-old could create. There's no way this could be real. Right?

Wrong. The intelligence of elephants is comparable to primates (and in some instances, elephants give humans a run for the money). Meanwhile, their dexterous trunks allow them to use tools to draw on paper. The distinction, however, lies in whether the elephant is painting on a whim or has been trained to do so. As you probably have guessed, the latter is most often the case.

Watch an elephant painting performance from start to finish in the video below and follow the debate from there:

Snopes tackled this too-good-to-be-true question in detail. "They aren't engaging in any form of creativity, much less abstractly making free-form portraits of whatever tickles their pachydermic fancies at the moment," the site  reads. "They do nothing more than outline and color specific drawings they've been painstakingly trained to replicate." 

But how painstakingly? According to zoologist Desmond Morris, it involves a tug here, a nudge there, a subtle pulling of the elephant's ear. Now, take a look at the video below and pay particular attention to the trainer:

On the one hand, it's clear that the elephants are smart and talented. However, activist organizations like the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS) warn that elephants can undergo extreme discomfort in the training process, and that it detracts from their quality of life as they are forced to paint the same picture repeatedly.

Elephant named Karishma paints on a canvas

An elephant named Karishma paints a picture at the ZSL Whipsnade Zoo in Dunstable, England. Every year in September, Karishma's paintings are put on display as part of the zoo's Elephantastic Elephant Appreciation Weekend, during which donations are taken to fund conservation research and research. (Photo: Getty Images)

But not all elephants are taught to paint to entertain tourists or for monetary gain. The nonprofit Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project was established in 1998 by two artists who use the elephant-created art to benefit elephants in human care as well as those in the wild. According to the project's website, the training process is stimulating and based on positive reinforcement, and part of the group's mission is to educate elephant trainers about how to safely and carefully train domesticated elephants. The result is a collection of different paintings that showcase individual elephants' artistic styles. Funds gained from selling the paintings go to local communities that rely on elephants for their value in tourism, as well as conservation agencies that reintroduce elephants into the wild and to fight illegal poaching in Southeast Asia.

So, in honor of Elephant Appreciation Day (Sept. 22), cheer on the creative, painting elephants. Yes, there's still work to be done (black market prices of ivory are rising, after all), but by supporting conservation efforts and making conscious consumer decisions, you can make a difference, too.

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