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Freeing Thailand's Elephants

By Karishma Kripalani

An hour outside of Chiang Mai, elephants roam freely against the backdrop of the Mae Taeng valley. Dotting the landscape, among the elephants there are also bullocks rescued from the slaughterhouse - and more.

A large basket filled with watermelon, bananas and pineapple sits on the deck, JOKIA printed on the side. The elephant’s trunk waves in anticipation. It is lunch time.  I pick up a large chunk of watermelon, red and green and juicy in the hot afternoon sun and hold out my arm. Jokia’s trunk wraps itself around the fruit and swiftly places it into her mouth - and her trunk is back for more. Assuming my role as a feeding machine, I get down to work. As I hand the elephant her fruit, I notice that she is a little slower to grab the watermelon chunks than her companions. The tip of her trunk twitches sensitively. I look into her white eyes and realize that Jokia is blind.

“It is easy to find me,” Lek laughs. “You just have to look for the dogs.”  An entourage trots at the heels of her work boots as we walk along the viewing platform. The park is also home to 70 abandoned dogs. We sit as elephants stroll below. As Lek speaks, a dog rests his head on her lap.

Time Magazine’s 2005 Asian Hero of the Year, Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert is gracious and unassuming. Her petite frame comes with a big dream - and an iron will.
Discriminated against for being indigenous, a woman and poor, Lek overcame adversity to make sure she received an education. She ended up in a school run by missionaries.

“When I was 16, I had an experience that changed my life. I used to go to the villages with the missionaries and one day I saw an elephant that had cuts and was bleeding.” Despite their status as a cultural symbol, elephants in Thailand do not have protected status. According to Thai law, they are livestock. This leaves them open to mistreatment.

“So the next time I went back, I took medicine with me.” Lek is very matter of fact.
“The deeper I went into the forest, the deeper my love grew for the elephants.”
As her love grew, so did her determination to rescue elephants that were being driven with hooks, overworked with amphetamines, or exploited in the tourist trade.
“I did any work I could find, any decent work, until I saved up enough money so I could buy an elephant.”
A sustainable model
That was in 1992. To date, Lek has rescued 34 distressed elephants, including two orphaned babies, many from logging work and unsustainable tourism. Their home is a vast reserve established in 2003.

“Many of the elephants have mental problems when they come here and that is very difficult.”

A sanctuary from mistreatment by previous owners and inadequate living conditions, Lek’s Park is home to elephants with broken legs or backs, and often suffer from post traumatic stress. Hooks and slingshots are inconceivable here; Lek prefers positive reinforcement to train elephants. Rather than break their spirits, Lek surrounds them with love.

But elephants are big – and expensive. An elephant eats a tenth of its body weight – that’s between 200 and 500 kg of food each day. 

A sustainable eco-tourism model helps to pay for full-time care of the elephants and enables Lek to rescue more. However, there are no circus rides to be had here. Instead, visitors fit around the elephants’ schedule, helping to feed and bathe them.  A one to four week volunteer program supports the work of the Park and also helps to spread Lek’s message. Volunteers have included groups of wealthy Europeans, each with their own private bodyguard in attendance, through to delinquent youth. Lek recounts letters she receives from grateful parents, “It changed their life.”

Sustainability is at the heart of all of Lek’s activities. The elephant park, which was initially met by resistance from local villagers, is now an integral part of the community. Neighbouring farmers follow sustainable practices without the use of pesticides and other chemicals, and in exchange, the Park guarantees to purchase produce, no matter how misshapen. The Park trades with the farmers at the market rate, and removes the need for them to travel into Chiang Mai city or local markets. Thus this arrangement is beneficial for the farmers, ensures a healthy supplement to the elephants’ foraging diet, and promotes more environmentally-friendly farming practices.

The role of education
“The biggest challenge I face is education.” And yet, as I listen to Lek’s story, it seems like education is the foundation of all of her work, and success. 
Educational exchange is a significant feature of Lek’s volunteer program. Volunteers learn from grandmothers from the local village sharing traditional craft. Every evening, volunteers teach English language skills to the mahouts, or elephant drivers.
These boys and young men come to the Park from refugee camps on the Burmese border, and are often ex-child soldiers. Lek offers them room and board, and an opportunity to learn skills and a livelihood.

A focus on women’s empowerment is evident at the Park. Local villagers are offered training in traditional Thai yoga massage and are offered space in which to practice this skill above the central seating area in the Park. Unlike other Thai massage parlors, these women retain 100% of the payment. In keeping with the principle of sustainability, the majority of food served is vegetarian; a range of delicious dishes prepared by local women employed in the kitchens.

Beyond the Park
Through Jumbo Express, Lek continues the work she began as a teenager. This field clinic for elephants travels deep into areas of the forest that are not accessible by vehicle, delivering injections, cleaning cuts and addressing health care. An extension of the Park’s work is the Surin Project, where in a sanctuary east of Bangkok, mahouts who have previously used their elephants for street begging are exposed to alternative methods and practices. Lek’s work has crossed borders into Cambodia and even India, where she advises on projects in Bangalore.
Lek’s vision goes much further. In the mountains in the North, Elephant Haven is a jungle retreat for elephants. Eco-tourism is the lifeblood of the Park, and helps give the elephants a home, but this is the ultimate destination for old and sick elephants, where they can live undisturbed by humans.

The dream? “That all elephants in Thailand are free.”

For more information about Lek and her work on sustainable education, see: