“His screams stuck in my head,” recalls Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert, of an occasion she saw an injured elephant being forced to work. “I looked in his eyes and I couldn’t believe how much they expressed his anger. I had to make a promise to him. And that promise was that I would speak out for and provide a home for these elephants”.
Making good on her promise, Lek – who has been dubbed both ‘The Hero of Asia’ by Time Magazine and ‘Hero of the Planet’ by The Ford Foundation – founded Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants, in 1995. And as she strolls through the lush green fields of the refuge for her beloved creatures, the elephants are instantly drawn to her. They abandon their usual spots and slowly but surely walk towards her. The bond she shares with the elephants is clear.
“It’s not easy, but I don’t give up. I would like to see a new generation of tourists travel with respect for animals. They are not born to serve us in this way.”
Lek’s passion for the majestic animals was ignited in her small hill tribe village of Baan Lao, two hours north of Chiang Mai. There, she developed a friendship with a baby elephant that was gifted to her grandfather.
Lek rescued her first elephant in 1992 and established the Elephant Nature Park – a place that allows the animals to live a life without the pain and suffering that tourism and unnatural performances has been known to bring – three years later. The elephants here simply roam the vast expanse of the park as they please, eating, bathing in the river and rolling in the mud. It’s a pleasure to watch.
And it’s a very different environment to what most tourists are exposed to. Taking an elephant ride still features on many bucket lists and watching elephant circus acts may seem like a fun activity. But Lek has seen firsthand the “ugly truth” behind these shows – that elephants undergo a painful process at the hands of their owners to be ‘broken’ and ultimately accept human control.
“It takes a long time for people to understand our concept,” says Lek. “It’s not easy, but I don’t give up. I would like to see a new generation of tourists travel with respect for animals. They are not born to serve us in this way. Many tourists come here and expect this but I would like to see more people travel with respect for living creatures. You have to travel with care.”
“I will work with elephants to the end of my day,” she states. “It doesn’t matter what happens – I will carry on speaking out for elephants and educating people.
Lek would like to see all captive elephants in Thailand eventually released back into the wild but with their natural habitat seriously depleted she knows this is not possible. So she wants to see change, from both the locals who work with elephants and from tourists. And she has some ideas as to how we can make this happen. “I believe the power of education will make a big difference to the industry here,” she explains. “If people understand the elephant situation and speak out I hope that one day we can make a change. So spread the word!”
Lek works with owners of elephant camps to encourage them to treat their animals more humanely and already she has seen some who have stopped elephant riding. She’s delighted to hear that Intrepid have stopped offering elephant rides and visits to entertainment venues on their trips. “This makes my heart smile!” she says. “When companies like Intrepid start to promote more humane ways for tourists to travel the attitudes of these businesses [elephant camps] will change. When the market changes the people here will change.”
Hoping to buy more land so she can take in more rescue elephants, it’s clear that her determination will never end. “I will work with elephants to the end of my day,” she states. “It doesn’t matter what happens – I will carry on speaking out for elephants and educating people. I have a lot of hope and I can see that one day the elephant conditions here will get better.”
Inspired to visit Lek’s Elephant Nature Park for yourself? Take an Intrepid trip around Thailand and drop in to say hello on your way through.
Photos c/o Lek Chailert, Flickr