Lek Chailert Went On A Mission To Save The Asian Elephant.
Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was founded by Sangdue “Lek” Chailert in the 1990’s to provide a sanctuary for elephants rescued from the logging industry( banned in 1989), street begging, elephant riding camps and circuses.
Lek has rescued over 200 elephants, many of them arrive blind, disabled and or suffering from psychological trauma. Many have gone through a process know as Phajaan or ‘crushing.
Phajaan or ‘crushing’ is the traditional Asian torture of young elephants to break their spirit. Used on both wild and domesticated elephants. It is the brutal torture of elephants until they are submissive to humans.
They are held in small cages, their front and back legs tied with ropes to stretch out their limbs, and then repeatedly stabbed, burned and beaten into submission. They are deprived of food and water. Bullhooks (a tool used in most forms of elephant control) are used to stab the animal's head, jab the skin and tug the elephant's ears.
The elephant learns to fear the bullhook, and it is then used to control the animal and motivate them to work, perform tricks, or give rides to tourists.
Elephants spines are not designed to have people riding on their backs and can leave them severely crippled for life.
There are no tricks or rides at Elephant Nature Park and not a bullhook in sight. Instead, visitors feed and walk peacefully amongst the world's largest land animal where they are allowed to roam free without chains or cages. Lek has also convinced many other elephant riding camps to convert to her method which provides a safe and healthy environment for the animals.
I sat down with Sangdue “Lek” Chailert and her husband, Darrick Thomson.
What made you dedicate your life to rescuing elephants?
“My love for animals, I know all the animals names, they are like my babies,” Lek says.
Lek talks about growing up in a small hill tribe village of Baan Lao, two hours north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. She says, "We believe in nature, and we are very traditional, not one female in the history of the village went to school. My mother put me in school. I wanted to go and study; I have a really strong mind."
Lek had to walk 14 kilometres to and from school, and she walked barefooted as it was too slippery to walk in shoes. She was bullied in the school by the boys that came from the city, they even trampled on her bare foot causing them to bleed. "My mother wanted to take me out of school, but I said no I want to learn.”
Lek later moved to a Christian school. And that’s how her story started.
Derrick explains, she was a student going into the Jungle with the missioners and saw elephants, and it changed her life.
Lek says, “ I was shocked to see a big giant animal get abused and beaten very bad by man. I saw this bull elephant get beaten and soaked in blood. He was pulling a log, and every time he pulled the log he would scream in pain, and he was angry.
“He had deep cuts from the chain,” Darrick adds.
Lek says, “ He looked at me, he was angry towards me, all humans. After I left the elephant's eyes followed me and haunted me I couldn't sleep I could hear the screaming in my mind."
Lek decided to start working and save money to pay for medicine to help the elephant. "I wanted to pay him back. I feel guilty for what the humans do to him. This is a little thing for me to do to show I care. The elephant had lots of wounds that were badly infected."
Lek went back to treat the elephant again; the mahouts were shocked because no one had ever come to the jungle to help the injured elephants "Every time I went back, there were more elephants to treat I could not believe the suffer of these animals in the jungle."
Even though Lek was a student from a poor family, she dreamed of opening her first sanctuary and buying the elephant, she didn't know how, but she had the determination. She worked hard and saved money and every time Lek went back to treat the elephant she would tell him "patience, soon I come and pick you up. I fall in love with him, first time I fall in love with a man," she says with a laugh.
How do you go about finding elephants to rescue?
"So many people contact me, especially nowadays with social media, they see an elephant get abused and sick they send a picture, then we go to negotiate, some we can rescue some we cannot depends if they want too much money. I don't want to pay a high price to someone who abuses elephants, so they use that money to go and buy another elephant. Some owners give away the injured elephant and then ask for it back we don't give back when it gets better. I buy their life forever, so they stay here free."
How do you feel about elephant riding camps?
I don't like elephant riding, we all make mistakes I have ride elephant before. So many people think it won't do any harm because of their weight, they don't see how many mothers have stillborn, how many have fallen, sick, injured, and die. That's why education is important. For the rest of my life, I promised I will do anything to protect them."
"When I first started the project people laughed and said not long you will soon collapse, who will come and wash elephants and not ride them or see them performing? But now I can prove to them".
"I work with so many people, people who beat elephants, circus elephants and use elephants in the wrong way. I don't fight with them around here I don't hate, I don't push them away, I will do more positive, I make friends, only friends will talk. I bring love bigger than hate; now we have 23 camps join my project. I know, so many camps don't like me. I still invite them to visit my project. I want them to change it's about elephants, not us."
All money comes from people such as volunteers, visitors and donations with no help from the government. The money is used sustainably and supports many other projects. 75% of the people who work are hill tribes people, who have no education. The ENP employs over 400 staff, allowing people to work locally and keeping families together.
In addition to rescuing elephants, Lek has Rescued over 200 monkeys, water buffalo, pigs, horses, over 100 rabbits from animal testing, cats and dogs. The Park, needs a lot of food for the animals as well as veterinary care and medication.
Rain Forest Restoration is a tree planting programme, the ecological balance of plants and animals will be encouraged by the re-introduction of the rainforest. Some 25 acres of the mountainside will be planted every year for the first five years.
Ways to help.
There are many ways people can help to make a difference.
Visit, volunteer, donate and other ways to help.
Avoid elephant riding camps, circuses, no demand, no business.
Education, spread the word, about the elephants in the tourist trade.
Each elephant has their own mahout and Elephant Nature Park has rigorous checks in place to make sure the mahout and elephant have a good relationship if the elephant doesn't accept the mahout, they will find a different one until the elephant is happy.
The Asian elephant is listed as endangered, and conservationists estimate only 6,000 Asian elephants remain in Thailand, with roughly half in captivity. Down from 100,000 over the past century. There is not enough natural habitat left in Thailand because of the expanding human population.
My interview with Sangdue “Lek” Chailert.
I was thrilled when I sat down with Lek and interviewed her. I was expecting short answers to my questions considering how busy she must have been. But she took her time and spoke in depth and with such passion. She is a small framed woman with a gentle voice I feel the world is truly blessed to have her and she is indeed a hero. She has shown that you can be poor and come from nowhere, but you can make a difference.
My stay at Elephant Nature Park
If you love elephants, it doesn't get any better than this. Before I visited Elephant Nature Park, I researched their organisation to make sure there was no abuse and booked a two day one night stay.