Distraction Free Reading

Gazing into the Eyes of Elephants: Unsettling Recognition in Multispecies Relations

“Do the elephants recognize you?”

I am asked some version of this question by most people who find out my work has involved multiyear relations with elephants in Thailand. The short answer is yes, but not in the ways that most people think when they ask about recognition. I know that the elephants recognize me because they ignore me, because my presence in their space does not perturb them; the absence of a reaction, what might be interpreted as indifference, is how I know that I am familiar to them. People find this response disappointing. The ways that elephants express recognition do not seem to be legible to people as recognition. I think what people expect, or perhaps hope to hear, is a picture of recognition that aligns more with certain anthropocentric and often commodified forms of human-elephant interaction.

Over the last decade, I have been pursuing questions around the ethics and politics of human-elephant relatedness through my work with Karen elephant keeping communities, NGO workers, scientists, and scholars in Thailand and elsewhere. Karen people make up the majority of elephant keepers in the region that is now called Northern Thailand but are often left out of historical accounts. Yet, even when they are mentioned, they are marginalized as migrant “hill tribes” rather than recognized as full members of Thai civil society.[1] In my fieldwork, I bring together my background in conservation biology, ethology, and ongoing doctoral research in cultural anthropology to attend to concerns of environmental justice and multispecies relations. In this essay, I explore concepts of recognition in human-elephant relations as an invitation to expand our methodological inquiries in multispecies anthropology.

Seeing and Representing Elephants

Elephants are probably one of the most frequently represented species in the world. Their representation as “charismatic,” intelligent, and cute makes it useful to spark interest in animal conservation and environmentalism. Scrolling through a Facebook group for self-identified elephant lovers, a familiar scene is repeated across images posted, shared, liked, or viewed by the group’s five thousand plus members. Standing next to an elephant’s head, sometimes with arms wrapped around their trunk, the human subject is depicted gazing into the eyes of the elephant. Presumably, the elephant is understood to be gazing back, in a moment of mutual recognition.

However this form of recognition, premised upon making eye contact and often accompanied by expressions of deep care and passion people have for elephants, is a prime example of how human-centered modes of apprehension and recognition can do a disservice to elephants and people who live in long-term relations with them. This is because getting close enough to gaze into the eyes of an elephant is a manufactured tourist experience that requires heavily training elephants to perform what is legible as recognition to tourists. In fact, vision is an elephant’s least used sense (Ball et al., 2022). Scientists have written extensively about elephants’ cognitive capacities and their sensory perceptions.[2] However, attempts to show how elephants are “just like us” can have unintended consequences for elephants and the people who live and work alongside them.

Thailand is home to the largest elephant tourism industry in the world. The elephant tourism industry sells as its product the chance to ride, feed, bathe, touch, and get close to elephants, often framed as forms of caretaking or learning to become a “mahout,” the local term for an elephant keeper. Over the last decade, most elephant tourism facilities have added new language to their marketing including words and phrases like “sanctuary,” “care facility,” and “retirement home,” but these changes in marketing do not necessarily imply a change in the structure of the industry. Elephant sociality and elephant sensory needs are disregarded in the manufacture of tourist encounters in favor of creating experiences designed to make human consumers “feel” connected to elephants, the industry’s major selling point.

There are stakes, for elephants, in how they are represented. In the vast majority of captive environments, especially in Thailand, elephants are unable to move, socialize, or forage freely because these core activities require them to have access to large spaces and a plant diversity similar to their natural habitats. The expectations and assumptions about who elephants are differ dramatically from their habits and life ways in environments where they have the space to express themselves. In order to make elephants conform to human-centered expectations of care and recognition in these constrained environments, a great deal of work must go into making each individual elephant align with tourists’ imagination of them as “gentle giants.”  This is especially true in places like Thailand where the largest elephant tourism industry in the world is built around visitors paying money to interact with them.

Relatedly, mahouts, those who actually perform the day-to-day care-labor required to house elephants in captivity are often purposefully hidden from sight and left out of conventional historiography. This is especially evident in periods of crisis like the shut-down of tourism caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Thai government’s ban on timber extraction in 1989, where it is always elephants, rather than mahouts, who are described as “unemployed” and in need of a social safety net. This selective anthropomorphism naturalizes elephants as “workers” and mahouts as “caretakers,” making it difficult to address mahouts labor rights. Anthropology, with its emphasis on the development of rapport in long-term participatory fieldwork, offers productive openings to address these intersecting ethical issues.

Recognizing Elephants in Ethnography

Ethnographers “need to be able to recognize and identify the objects of observation unique to animal subjects, employ the kinds of anti-anthropocentric theory that will enable us to better understand those subjects, and meet the demands of their responsibility as ethnographers to produce knowledge that situates animal subjectivities in both their complex histories and infinite diversities.” (Animal Ethicist Lori Gruen and Anthropologist Elan Abrell, 2021)

I was drawn to thinking about the politics of interspecies recognition because I found the question does [x] recognize you to be “both ubiquitous and quite difficult to answer” (Taylor 2008, 315). For medical anthropologist Janelle Taylor, who wrote about the politics of recognition with respect to older people with dementia, when people asked about her mother’s ability to recognize her, they were really asking about her mother’s ability to remember hers and other loved ones’ names. The experience of caring for her mother led Taylor to a critique of this cognitively narrow understanding of recognition: “She may not ‘recognize’ me in a narrowly cognitive sense, but my Mom does ‘recognize’ me as someone who is there with her, someone familiar perhaps, and she does not need to have all the details sorted out in order to ‘care’ for me” (Taylor 2008, 329). Questions about one’s capacity to perform recognition are questions about personhood, a failure to “recognize” in this cognitively narrow prescriptive way could lead to an individual’s social death and a denial of their recognition as a person.

A dark grey female Asian elephant standing in a forest raising trunk in the air, partially obscured by branches at the foreground of the shot.

Naw Wah raising her trunk (2022). Image taken by the author.

On the day that I took the photo above, I had joined a Karen mahout on his weekly trip into the forest to check on his elephant, Naw Wah. Naw Wah lives in a large forested area near the border with Myanmar, where she is part of a project to return captive elephants to large areas of forest (Baker and Winkler 2020).

As I felt the cool relief of a breeze passing by, I looked towards Naw Wah and saw her trunk rise. Her ears stopped flapping and stayed pinned out as she held her trunk hovering in the air, maximizing the amount of information she could gather from the area upwind. Elephant trunks are full of olfactory receptors that can make precise distinctions that scientists compare to human visual acuity (Ball et al. 2022). Naw Wah’s trunk will pick up on nuances about who and what occupy the land upwind. Knowing that Naw Wah and other elephants are able to sense differently than humans, Karen interlocutors have learned to interpret her responses to these cues to better apprehend the forest around them. On this day, the elephants exchanged a few audible rumbles, then went back to foraging. Watching Naw Wah’s reaction told us that there was no danger upwind from where we stood, around a hundred meters away from her.

To capture this image, I had to use the full power of my camera’s zoom lens, evidenced by the out of focus twigs that partially block my view. Naw Wah was aware of our presence, but continued to forage and ignore us. A little while later, Naw Wah and her family members begin to walk away. “Do you want to follow?” one of my Karen interlocutors asks me. He had already given the small parcel of salt to his elephant, the ritual of greeting that reinforces their relationship. To follow her now would solely be for the purpose of my ethnographic gaze, leading to a cascade of ethical questions. Does she want to be followed? Does she mind being followed? What might be gleaned from continuing to follow her? How might my ethnographic observations about her and her family from the choice to follow benefit her and other elephants’ flourishing? There are not always obvious, black-and-white answers to these questions; they require sustained reflexivity grounded in a deep understanding of elephant subjectivity and the historical context that informs their current socio-ecological environment. On this day, we remained in place and watched as her family members disappeared into the dense forest.


What would it mean for elephants if ethnographers took seriously elephant-centered forms of recognition instead of anthropocentric ideas of recognition and personhood? Elephants are participants in the process of ethnographic knowledge production, but their ability to refuse participation varies immensely depending on the conditions under which ethnographers seek to engage them. Often, the places where elephants are most accessible to ethnographers and scientists, and where they have been written about the most, are tourist venues, zoos, and other highly constrained captive environments where elephants have the least capacity to choose whether or not they wish to participate as ethnographic subjects.

Ethnographic observations about elephants come with ethical and moral responsibilities. There are more than four thousand captive elephants in facilities across most provinces in Thailand. They account for around thirty percent of the world’s captive Asian elephants, and the largest population of elephants used in tourism in the world (Menon and Tiwari 2019). The majority of these elephants live in far more deprived conditions than Naw Wah.

Ethnography may offer alternative ways of narrating and describing elephant worlds that make their subjecthood apprehendable to humans on their terms, but it also runs the risk of reproducing the same anthropocentrism that undergirds the misapprehension of reciprocal recognition on eye-gazing photo-ops. Though anthropologists complete rigorous training in order to develop what Anna Tsing terms the “arts of attunement” in ethnographic research, we lack corresponding training and evaluation in attuning to more-than-human interlocutors. Indeed, there are no ethical standards for social science research representing other-than-human animals. How then can we evaluate the ethics and politics of representation when it comes to other-than-human animals?

Echoing longstanding arguments of ecofeminist scholars[3] around honoring difference without creating hierarchy, I have argued that rather than gazing into the eyes of an elephant, we can truly recognize them as subjects by instead creating distance, and contributing to the conditions that afford their ability to refuse participation as ethnographic subjects.


[1] Karen speaking people are members of one of the indigenous ethnic minority groups that were labeled as “hill tribes” in Thailand and have been structurally excluded from full membership as citizens of the Thai nation (Delang 2003, Hayami 2006).

[2] Some examples include Bates, Poole and Byrne (2008); Fishlock, Caldwell and Lee (2016); Iris and Hasegawa (2012); Plotnik et al. (2010); and Stoeger et al (2012).

[3] These include scholars like Val Plumwood, Lori Gruen, Marti Kheel, Carol Adams who have all written extensively on ecofeminism, intersectionality, and hierarchy.


Abrell, Written Elan, and Lori Gruen. 2021. “Ethics and Animal Ethnography Working Paper.” Middletown: Wesleyan Animal Studies. https://www.wesleyan.edu/animalstudies/WASEvents/FinalEthicsandAnimalEthnographyDraft

Ball, R., Jacobson, S. L., Rudolph, M. S., Trapani, M., & Plotnik, J. M. (2022). “Acknowledging the relevance of elephant sensory perception to human–elephant conflict mitigation.” Animals, 12(8), 1018.

Baker, Liv, and Rebecca Winkler. “Asian elephant rescue, rehabilitation and rewilding.” Animal Sentience 5, no. 28 (2020): 1.

Menon, Vivek, and S. Kr Tiwari. “Population status of Asian elephants Elephas maximus and key threats.” International Zoo Yearbook 53, no. 1 (2019): 17-30.

Taylor, Janelle S. “On recognition, caring, and dementia.” Medical anthropology quarterly 22, no. 4 (2008): 313-335.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *