A hairy story and a serious grey area.
I came out of the jungles of Nepal full of conservation theory and fine thoughts, I disliked gimmicks and demeaning tricks, I frowned upon the elephant painting and the dancing, I surely knew enough to know that the selling of elephant byproducts, ivory, tail hair and the like was evil - even in the smallest most harmless case of personal sales where we knew the product was harmlessly removed or taken in reverence from a dead, long loved, elephant it was market creating and shouldn't be encouraged.
Then, as time went on, I have to admit that I softened, I met the guys and lived with them, I saw them on the street, I knew them and knew their elephants - their one source of income - and came to figure, that with guidance on what was harmful and what was not, we could possibly support certain activities - we may not encourage it in this camp as we are in the happy position of being able to provide for almost all of the mahouts' and elephants' (reasonable) needs but we shouldn't be too quick to judge those with daily fodder bill and financial mountain to climb and only one source of income.
If a painting or a trick, an elephant hair ring keeps the elephant fed for an extra day, means it has to do one less trek in the burning sun, one less hour on the streets, if an elephant football match allows a camp to keep a baby next to her mother and unweaned for an extra month before she has to go back to work then we should try to understand.
I still draw the line at harmful tricks putting elephants into an unnatural position that will hurt their frame, I draw the line at the sale of ivory, even taken from a broken kanai or the byproduct of a shaved tusk, how are we to guarantee it?
In an ideal world these things would be sacred and between a mahout, his elephant and their family - but I'm an old romantic and I waited for years for a mahout to give me an elephant hair ring from an elephant I loved before I realised that all the girls got them automatically and that nothing is sacred anymore.
I asked for and was given (from Nong Pleum) the hairs inside our wedding rings, the elephant hair ring on my right hand was a gift, but not from a mahout, from an elephant I know, and didn't find a permanent place on my finger until there was something very special to symbolise.
See, an old romantic, searching for the sacred in what has become mundane.
But in wearing these things, I am encouraging a market? Elephant tail hair when harvested, one or two hairs at a time so as not to lose the fly swat quality is not a problem and no mahout is going to harm his own elephant - but where there's a market there are businessmen and where there are businessmen there are profit margins and where, as the story below outlines, there are profit margins there is greed.
To be honest, I'm not sure what the best answer is, in theory I side with the conservationists, the creation of a market will lead to the expansion of a market and harmful practices caused by unscrupulous businessmen - but I still wear my rings and don't frown too much when a mahout will pick a tail hair and create a ring to give to a friend.
Rings made of elephant hair flood central highland souvenir shops (Vietnam)