At barely five-feet-tall and a stark contrast to the enormous creatures that reside at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Sangdeaun “Lek” (Thai for “small”) Chailert easily stands tall among them. But what she lacks in stature, she more than makes up for in passion and perseverance. The founder of Save Elephant Foundation, Lek has spent the past 35 years rescuing and advocating on behalf of animals, most notably the Asian elephant.
More than 70 rescued elephants currently live at the ENP with many displaying injuries as a result of their mistreatment including broken legs, dislocated shoulders and blindness. But, as Lek explains, far more difficult to heal are the emotional wounds they bring with them at the hands of their former mahouts (trainers/keepers)—some so horrific it’s truly remarkable that they ever find ways to trust humans again.
“Eighty-five percent of the elephants that come here have very big mental problems, they are like zombies.” The ENP has their own forest where new arrivals are taken to just be in their natural habitat and get reacquainted with living free to wander as well as interact with other elephants. The rehabilitation process and trust building is a slow one but the results are worthwhile as evidenced by seeing them play in the river, freely wandering the grounds and by all accounts enjoying their ‘retirement.’
"With elephants, they fight and work things out in the beginning and then nothing can break the bond of love until they die.”
The plight of the Asian elephant is a complicated one. There are an estimated 30,000 of them worldwide of which approximately 3,000-4,000 are in Thailand. As the national symbol of this country, elephants are symbolically revered in many ways but in reality those in captivity are used primarily for tourism purposes (elephant rides, elephant treks, circus performances, etc), and illegal logging.
The demand is so large and their economic impact so great that currently there are no laws in place to regulate the way they are treated by their mahout nor are the people that benefit from their use always willing to voluntarily co-operate to solve issues of abuse. Further complicating the problem is the fact that land is scarce and declining at an alarming rate due to human encroachment.
The ENP not only provides a sanctuary for rescued elephants, it also demonstrates an interaction experience for tourists that is both humane and far more powerful and connective than a simple elephant ride. Visiting it in person is incredibly rewarding for even the most seasoned traveller and at the same time provides an excellent educational platform with respect to responsible travel practices concerning animal welfare. And while advocates like Lek agree there are some tourism outfits providing elephant rides that don’t mistreat their animals, she makes the point that they’re simply not necessary. “I just don’t understand why people want to ride elephants," she said. "There is no reason and here you can walk beside them and look into their eyes.” The next plan the ENP will introduce is a “hands off” program where visitors will be able to witness elephants in their natural environment from observation decks for an even more authentic experience.
Although seeing and hearing what was happening to elephants in terms of their declining numbers and experiences of abuse is troubling, Lek does believe positive change is beginning to happen and points to education as the key to this movement of change. “Spreading the word and educating others is important. We have visitors and volunteers here and the benefit is that after they learn about the elephants they take this knowledge home. I don’t blame people for wanting to do elephant rides, most of them don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. But after they learn about it, they will never want to ride them.”
When asked what she has learned from a lifetime of working with elephants, Lek immediately responds. “Love.”
According to her, humans have it all wrong. “Humans are always nice to each other at first and early in a relationship do nice things to impress but the love and effort often fades," she explained. "With elephants, they fight and work things out in the beginning and then nothing can break the bond of love until they die.”
Outside of the ENP, the Save Elephant Foundation supports more than a dozen projects including Thailand Cares, Surin Project, Journey to Freedom and Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia – all working toward providing sustainable alternatives to local villages, educating and training mahouts on humane treatment practices, educating visitors and tourists, as well as rescuing a variety abused animals. Lek’s lifelong legacy of dedication to animal welfare, along with the international awareness she’s been responsible for to date has been recognized worldwide. She has been named one of six “Women Heroes of Global Conservation” in 2010 by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, one of Time Magazine’s “Heroes of Asia,” the Humane Society of the United States of America’s “Genesis Award” and the Ford Foundation’s “Hero of the Planet.”
But none of those accolades speak louder than the demonstration I recently witnessed firsthand. She led me out to the middle of the park and then called out several names. Within moments, elephants began walking toward her from all directions until a small herd surrounded her, engulfing her with their trunks getting as close to her as they could. After several minutes of this she looked at me and said, “See? No hooks, no knives, no violence. Just... love.” The connection between her and her “children,” as she referred to them, was so profound that it brought me to tears.
For anyone who thinks that one person can't make a difference in this big world of ours, there is a tiny giant of a woman who is proving otherwise, bringing awareness to and saving one Asian elephant at a time.
This trip would not have been possible without the support of Intrepid Travel and Cathay Pacific. Thank you to our partners for helping make our 2nd annual Flight Centre Canada charity trip such a great success and providing a life-changing experience for our participants.
Contribute to the rescue and rehabilitation of elephants in captivity by donating to the non-profit organization, Save Elephant Foundation. Tour operators like Intrepid Travel make it possible for travellers to discover their purpose and contribute to responsible tourism. Intrepid is a global adventure travel company that has been taking travellers off the beaten track to discover the world’s most amazing places for 26 years, including places like the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Getting there has never been easier! Cathay Pacific offers two flights daily non-stop between Vancouver and Hong Kong, (increasing to 17 flights weekly in March 2017), 10 flights weekly from Toronto to Hong Kong, and daily non-stop service from Vancouver to New York (JFK), plus dedicated freighter service to Hong Kong from Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary. From the convenient hub of Hong Kong, Cathay offers seamless connections to an extensive Asian network, including Bangkok.