Elephants Boon Thong, 40, Ronaaldo, 1.6, and his mother Lersu, 30, stand on a hillside near the Mae Sapok Village on July 21, 2020 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
CNN  — 

An Asian elephant struts into the pool and dips its head beneath the surface, using the tip of its trunk like a snorkel.

Standing on its hind legs as the water relieves the gravitational burden of its body, the animal wades between two men offering bananas at either end of the pool.

In a room down below, awestruck children watch through wide glass windows.

Some of the people who have attended this elephant swimming exhibition at Khao Kheow Open Zoo southeast of Bangkok are surprised that it has been criticized as an example of animal cruelty and exploitation.

But a recent controversy over an award-winning photo of a swimming elephant at Khao Kheow illustrates the friction that exists between some animal rights activists and people who manage, appreciate and profit from the tourism roles that elephants fill in Thailand.

The thorny debate touches on issues of animal welfare, media representation and what some see as cultural bias.

‘Elephant in the room’

The latest outcry began in October 2021 after a photo by Australian photojournalist Adam Oswell won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) award for Photojournalism. Run by the Natural History Museum (NHM) of London since 1964, the annual WPY is a prestigious contest.

Taken at Khao Kheow and titled “Elephant in the Room,” Oswell’s photo shows an elephant with its head and body submerged while a trainer, or mahout, swims above in what looks to be a relatively small tank. People of various ages, all with Asian features, are pictured watching the elephant.

WPY host Chris Packham called the scene “wholly unacceptable.” In acceptance comments, Oswell said he thinks the image “shows a disconnection with nature (and) how we manufacture nature.”

Some reactions to the photo on social media were harsher, often deploying adjectives like “sickening,” “vile” and “barbaric.”