Chiang Mai FeMail  by Elena Edwards
HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Can elephants really paint?

The H3N8 flu virus – a new threat?

Human traffickers to face new Asian cross-border detection protocols

Opinion

 

Can elephants really paint?

These days, the social networking sites online seem to be full of uploaded photos and videos of paintings by elephants, and a large number of recent charity fashion shows in Chiang Mai have featured some really great frocks created with silks painted by the same undoubtedly highly talented beasts. The entire world and its tourist aunt, it seems, wants to own an example of artistic prowess by an elephant Picasso! Given the progression of styles in modern art, some of the paintings attributed to elephants should surely be hanging in London’s Tate Gallery, possibly in the same room as the stuffed sheep, the used bed and the pile of bricks so beloved of art critics. Elephant painting has even made it to the movies; a recent children’s film shot here in Chiang Mai featured a Hi-So western art gallery owner choosing, for his latest gallery exhibition, an elephant’s painting over a selection of paintings by talented humans!
Some of us, however, may have wondered how this all started, and how a jungle creature, however amazing, could do what humans often find difficult! Some while ago, a highly regarded UK zoologist, Desmond Morris, having been shown an online video of an elephant in artistic mode, decided to check this out on a visit to Thailand. The results of his research were interesting, to say the least.
Morris was not unfamiliar with the artistic talents of chimpanzees, having conducted a previous study on just this subject. He found, however, that although chimps have a way of expressing themselves in linear art, varying patterns of lines from picture to picture, paintings representative of objects were completely beyond them. Hence his amazement when shown the video of a Thai elephant painting (apparently unaided except for a mahout who loaded and changed the brushes) a picture of an elephant holding a flower in its trunk!
Morris’s chosen research destination was the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, a recreational tourist attraction in the Pattaya area. Daily elephant displays are held, and the zoologist was impressed by the care taken of the elephants by their individual mahouts, who were clearly devoted to their own personal pachyderms. The performances themselves concentrated on the skills of the giant beasts, rather that presenting a ‘circus’ act, with part of the show devoted to the painting skills of 3 young female elephants.
First, heavy easels with large white cards firmly attached were placed in front of the elephants, each of whom was given a brush loaded with paint, which her mahout pushed gently into the end of her trunk. The mahouts placed themselves to one side of their elephants’ heads, and watched as they began to paint. The empty brushes were replaced with others by the mahouts; this continued until the paintings were finished, at which point the elephants bowed their heads to the audience and received a reward of bananas. The paintings, removed from their frames, were, as usual, sold to members of the amazed audience.
Morris, however, having watched very carefully every aspect of the procedure, noted the actions of the mahouts as well as those of the elephants. Every time an elephant made a mark on the card, the mahout tugged at the elephant’s ear, moving it up and down for a vertical line, sideways for a horizontal line and forward for a blob. Morris also noted that each individual elephant produced exactly the same individual picture at every show, a set routine guided by the mahout. A bunch of flowers, a tree, a plant; each reproduced exactly by the elephant whose mahout had designed the picture.
It seems, therefore, that these wonderful animals are, sadly, not creative artists in their own right – BUT, what muscular sensitivity and intelligence they show in translating tiny movements into instructions to place, with great delicacy and precision, the lines and marks on the card! Their paintings, even if not designed by the elephants themselves, should remind all of us that the wonder of the world of nature is to be respected and cherished.

 

The H3N8 flu virus – a new threat?

Yet another new strain of flu virus is hitting the headlines…at least in the US. Initially it caused panic, but now it is clear that it has killed relatively few victims - many of whom have pre-existent underlying conditions, and particularly if the sufferer is the possessor of a pushed-in nose – a Pekinese, a Pug, or a Shi-Tzu! Yes, the colloquial name for the H3N8 virus is ‘dog flu’ and, at least so far, it’s confined to man’s, (and woman’s), best friend.
The US department of agriculture has been taking it seriously since it jumped from horses to dogs some 5 years ago, with approval given by that august body last week for the release of the first available vaccine. Oddly, the virus is concentrated in only several areas of that vast country, Florida, the northern suburbs of New York City, Philadelphia and Denver, and is baffling virologists as a result. One University of Florida veterinarian states that current wisdom is that no-one knows what H3N8 is going to do next.
The virus manifests itself as a pneumonia-like illness, which was first noticed when a third of the greyhounds at a Florida dog track suddenly died. It is easily transmitted, by contact or even the sharing of a water bowl, with scientists at first fearing that it would become a major killer of up to 10% of the USA’s dog population. So far, 5 % of dogs who are infected do, in fact, die. Sadly, to stop its spread, if a dog shelter finds the virus, it is usually eliminated by killing all the dogs and disinfecting the cages and grounds.
The virus, discovered in horses 40 years ago, seems to not yet be especially well adapted to dogs, having taken at least 5 mutations to jump from its original hosts and seems to need a certain density of dogs to keep it going. However, if more mutations occur, the issue could become serious.
Here in Thailand, with its huge population of street dogs, its accidental transportation from the USA could prove to be a real threat.


Human traffickers to face new Asian cross-border detection protocols

CMM reporters
During a recent conference and seminar held in Sydney, Australia, members of security forces from across Asia agreed to tackle the worsening situation of human trafficking, particularly of women, in the area by acting multilaterally.
A previous study had determined that the human trafficking trade, particularly in young women and girls, was far more sophisticated than had previously been suspected, and that the majority of victims smuggled into Australia were women from South East Asia. As a result, a new and more effective approach focused on regional cooperation is being introduced.
Increased regional cross-border sharing of information, with intelligence being held at a central location, should aid in the identification of modes of operation leading to the discovery of individual facilitators and gangs. An overview of the operations of syndicates of people smugglers is more difficult if each country works on its own, according to Commander Ramzi Jabbour of the Australian police, who have set up a dedicated unit to investigate allegations of human trafficking.
Many women in Thailand become victims of trafficking through violence or coercion, being duped into believing they are travelling to a new country to become legal workers in various trades. Once there, they are forced into the sex industry, and held hostage for years until they have paid off the huge debts incurred for their journeys.
Successful prosecutions of the criminal gangs responsible are rare; however, due to the agreed initiative, it is hoped that the rate of detection, arrest and imprisonment will improve considerably.


Opinion

The results of a recent poll undertaken across 17 Thai provinces drew my attention earlier this week to a much-discussed syndrome which pervades politics and other areas of life worldwide… corruption.
The poll in question involved 1,228 households, (please note, households, not people), from 17 provinces. That’s an average of 72 households per province…rather fewer, in these days of internet polls, than might possibly constitute a consensus. Even given the propensity in rural areas of large families crammed into one building, and considering the size of, say, Bangkok’s population alone, it would seem that a ‘result’ would be difficult to determine, especially as polls are usually intended, (aren’t they?), to represent the opinion of a cross-section of society.
The headline relating to the results of the poll reads as follows: ‘Thais OK with corrupt government’. Interesting. The text following suggests that 51% of ‘Thais’ are happy for their government to continue, (as are many other governments worldwide, including some that you, dear readers, may well have fled from), in the time-honoured manner, as long as they, the citizens, are doing OK! Oddly enough, the Thais I’m privileged to know don’t seem to share this opinion. Neither do UK friends feel the same about governmental behaviour in our ex-country, which, corruption-wise, is going to hell in a handcart right now, with MPs who felt free to claim everything, (including their mistresses), on expenses facing possible trial and imprisonment! Not to mention the recent ‘cash for peerages’ scandal, out of which a certain ex-PM, (one of ours this time), wriggled rather neatly.
In the days when I logged on regularly to Thai Visa’s Chiang Mai forum, (far too boring these days so visited far less frequently), I used to rather enjoy the rants about corruption…which always seemed to ignore the fact that this undesirable practice is not confined to Thailand alone. Guess it’s another one of those ‘glass half full versus glass half empty’ scenarios…although at times I did suspect that some posters’ glasses may have been regularly rather more than half full, at least for as long as it took to drain them! Joking aside, serious corruption, wherever it occurs in this wide and diverse world, tends to corrupt absolutely, as does absolute power. Put the two together and you have a very messy problem, which can well result in absolutely no-one doing ‘OK’, even those who are in the mire up to their Swiss bank accounts. And, yes, this brings us back to the most blatant current example of the ‘C’ word - to Burma – again.
Many readers may remember the televised reports of a certain wedding…that of a daughter of the Junta leader. A wedding that reputedly cost more than Burma’s annual National Health budget. Personally, I hadn’t seen so many diamonds around a single neck since I visited an exhibition of the British Crown Jewels, many years ago.
The fabulous jewels the bride was wearing, somewhat tastelessly, all at once, were apparently wedding gifts. Lucky lass, to be so popular with so many filthy-rich multi- millionaires, one might have thought. Think again! The perfect example, right next door to Chiang Mai, splashed on the world’s TV screens and all over the internet as well, of total, concentrated, absolute power and corruption, while outside the closed city’s walls, a nation suffers and starves. And yet, some years later, a Thai prime minister, one of a good few recently, comes back from a visit to that same city, smiling happily and stating, ‘It’s OK, guys, Junta members meditate and pray to Buddha’. Yeah, right.
However, both the international community and the ASEAN worm seem to be turning as regards that sad country and its sick leaders – if said leaders have to turn to the likes of North Korea for friendship and support, not to mention weapons of mass destruction, (for real this time), retribution of some kind can’t, hopefully, be far behind. In 1997, when Burma was allowed to join the ASEAN community, it’s unlikely that the rest of the member countries were clairvoyant enough to realise exactly how much international condemnation would result from that decision. The situation in Burma has since deteriorated to an impossible degree; recent world reaction, including, importantly, delicately worded comment from China itself, (how very Chinese…) seems to indicate that something, somewhere is ready to snap.
In 2015, the ASEAN member nations will finally establish a union similar to the European Union in the west. If drastic measures have not been taken to bring freedom and true democracy to the struggling Burmese people by then, ASEAN may find itself holding a poisoned chalice which will prove impossible to put down.
Finally, for those originating from the other side of the pond, please be aware that the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels are considered to be a worse sink of (yes, you’ve got it), corruption, than even the UN’s headquarters in New York! Way to go, guys, we can’t change the world!