Patrick Brown on project evolution and his Panos print ‘Chained Elephant’

This photograph was taken in Nepal at the Royal Nepalese Rangers base in Chitwan National Park and was later to become the signature image for my animal trade project. In 20 years of living in Asia I had seen some really big elephants, but this one was by far the largest. It was a huge beast, 52 years old when the photograph was taken. He had killed five mahoots (elephant handlers) in his life although that wasn’t the reason he was chained. Behind me, out of shot, there was a female elephant in season and it was to prevent him going to her.

Even though this elephant had killed people, he was extremely valuable, too valuable to put down. His height made him an asset to the Rangers, giving them extra elevation when out looking for poachers hiding in the fields of tall elephant grass. I rode the elephant with a couple of soldiers the following day. Just his size alone was intimidating and once you were on top the view was incredible. I tried to find out the circumstances of the five mahoots he had killed, but I never really got a full explanation. The handler could have been ill treating him and he had snapped and battered anyone who got in his way. I will never know.

A small group of Royal Nepalese soldiers riding elephants patrol the Royal Chitwan National Park (RCNP) at dawn.

When I took the photograph I only took one frame because I didn’t think it was such an important image. I was actually looking to make a photograph that would reference colonial pictures of elephants walking through elephant grass and that’s what I was focused on. At the moment I took the photograph I had got a little bit nervous when he reared, you can see there’s a slight motion in his head. I took the picture and got out of the way between him and the female elephant. When it came to putting together my book this photo never made it into the initial edit. It wasn’t until my friend the photographer Jack Picone was helping me edit and saw the image in the outtakes. I told him the backstory and he said ‘you’ve captured the essence of the project in this one frame’. This incredible creature, a chained animal, in an obliterated environment.

A group of Royal Forestry Department officers display seized tiger and snow leopards skins at the Bharatpur barracks in Chitwan National Park. The 5 year old stockpile has an estimated value of $750,000 USD.

Trading to Extinction became the name of the project. I originally came to the subject while working on a book called Black Market with journalists Adam Oswald and Ben Davis, on the trade in endangered species. Once this was finished I realized that I had only just scratched the surface. To be honest, I didn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the trade. We are going back nearly 20 years and as my knowledge grew I realized how everything was linked: the border shops with the animal parts coming from 1000s of miles away, the pangolins captured in Malaysia and on their way to China – it was all connected.

It was after 9/11 that the extent of the trade began to become better understood when the US congress was trying to trace the arms smuggling routes that had supplied Al-Qaeda. They kept running up against a brick wall but once they started to investigate the illegal animal trade they found the key to understanding how contraband was moved around the region. Animals or guns are all the same to a smuggler as long there is a good return. From a legal standpoint the animal trade is low risk and high yield and is now the fourth largest illegal trade in the world.

A group of park rangers with elephants patrol Kaziranga National Park, on the lookout for tigers and poachers.

I started work on Trading to Extinction in 2004 and it wasn’t completed until 2014. It was never meant to take 10 years. The more I kept chipping away the more I uncovered. I wasn’t constantly shooting, there was a lot of research. I lost count of the number of trips that didn’t lead to anything or didn’t produce a single picture. One thing I did learn, though, is to stay with it. You’ve got to keep your eye on the horizon, you know there’s going to be a lot of dead ends, there’s going to be a lot of situations where it doesn’t work out. In the end, they all lead you where you’re trying to get. I think that’s important. I look at the situations that weren’t as fruitful for pictures, they were often incredibly fruitful for learning and finding my way through a subject that not many people knew much about at that time.

The series and this particular photograph achieved recognition around the world winning a World Press Photo and a POYi (Pictures of the Year international) along the way and the book was nominated as one of the ten best documentary photo books of 2014. Did it change anything? The sad reality is the illegal animal trade is bigger than it’s ever been. It’s not my place to judge but maybe Trading to Extinction led people to know at least a little bit more and start a conversation we need to continually have with each other about what we are doing to the environment.

I haven’t done another project similar to Trading to Extinction in terms of timescale since but No Place on Earth matches it in scope. It documents the Rohingya crisis of 2017 and the Rohinga refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. Over a million Rohingya refugees fled to escape the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing. Cox’s Bazar is the largest refugee camp in the world and home to over 900,000 people. There was a total disregard for human rights by the Burmese military. The military coup in 2021 has put back democracy in Myanmar 20, 30 years if not more. With Covid, Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, Myanmar doesn’t make the news in Western media anymore. 170,000 people were recently displaced on the Myanmar -Thai border and there were no headlines. It is an important story and I am going to continue to report on this.

Chained Elephant

From Trading to Extinction

Chitwan National Park, Nepal, 2005

A large bull elephant sits with its leg chained. The 50 year old animal has killed five mahouts (handlers) in its lifetime. Elephants are used by soldiers to patrol the park in their hunt for animal poachers. Tens of thousands of animals are illegally captured every year for international trade. Some are exported as pets, or their body parts are used for decoration, or for medicinal and magical purposes. According to Cites - the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species - more than 22,000 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks in 2012. Small-time local poachers are caught and jailed, but more powerful, organized traffickers often operate unhindered due to official corruption and inertia.

Asian wildlife, the focus of Patrick Brown’s work on the trade, is being plundered and trafficked on an unprecedented scale. It is estimated that wildlife traders export 25,000 to 30,000 primates every year, along with millions of birds, reptiles and tropical fish. According to the UK government, the illegal wildlife industry is worth up to £17bn each year, and it is growing. Rhino horns can sell for up to £40,000 ($65,000) per kg, making it more expensive than gold. Wildlife trafficking is thought to be the third most valuable illegal trade in the world, after drugs and weapons, with import and export of endangered species often traveling via the same routes.


About Patrick Brown

Patrick Brown has lived and worked in Thailand for nearly 20 years, documenting critical issues across the Asia region often under-reported by the mainstream media. His work on the illegal trade in endangered animals won a World Press Photo Award in 2004 and Patrick continued working on the project for the next decade, covering its dealers, stockpiles, trafficking routes and markets, before publishing the book ‘Trading to Extinction’ in 2014.

In 2019 he published ‘No Place On Earth’ a series of portraits of and conversations with survivors of the massacres of Rohingya villages perpetrated in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State in 2017. The massacres were described by a human rights official at the UN as ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.

Patrick’s work has been exhibited at the International Centre of Photography in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo, and Visa pour l’Image in France and is held in private collections.