Weekly Local Biography

  Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert

By: Elle Faraday

The Elephant Nature Park run by a tiny lady with a huge heart
Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert is a tiny lady with a huge heart. She has dedicated her life to rescuing and caring for Thailand’s abused elephants. Her work is internationally recognised and culminated in her being awarded Time Magazine’s Hero of Asia last year.
Lek spends her waking hours living and breathing elephants and has sacrificed many things in her own life for these animals. She has fought all her life for her beliefs and a lifetime of struggle has resulted in a unique and hugely successful elephant sanctuary.
The Elephant Nature Park, in Mae Taeng District, is renowned throughout Asia and the world as a haven for suffering elephants and a beacon for the conservation of these magnificent animals. Lek also runs a travel agent business which helps to fund the Nature Park and every penny of her profits goes towards helping elephants.
The growing years
Lek grew up in a mountain village called Baan Lao. Her grandfather lived with her and had an elephant which was used to help him with his farming. That elephant was one of the lucky ones; he was very well cared for and considered a member of the family. This was one of Lek’s first experiences with elephants and immediately she knew that she wanted to work with them when she grew up — she didn’t realise just how special they would become to her. Lek told me ‘I saw straight away just how wonderful these animals are . . . I don’t know how anybody can work with them and not love them.’
As soon as she was old enough, she began to help elephant camp owners by looking for unemployed elephants. There were many elephants out of work as logging had just been banned. During this time Lek began to see just how badly many of the elephants were treated. She explained ‘It made my heart break to see all of these elephants suffering. I promised to myself that one day I would help them.’
Her own sanctuary
Lek did just that. It took a while and there were many teething problems, but in 1999 she finally turned her dream into a reality and set up her own sanctuary. It was very small to begin with as she just had one elephant, Mae Perm, but within three years she had rescued seven adults and two babies. Mae Perm is still living at the sanctuary and has been joined by 29 other elephants all rescued from abuse or neglect.
The park is truly unique. Each elephant is cared for by a dedicated mahout who tends to any ailments as well as feeding and bathing them. These elephants never have to work again and their only routine is to have a lunchtime feast on bananas and then enjoy a long soak in the river to cool down. If an elephant at the Park doesn’t want to do something, its simple — they don’t do it.
Hard work
Lek works seven days a week, often leaving Chiang Mai very early in the morning and not returning until late at night. On her way up to the Elephant Nature Park she stops off to buy the elephants bananas and other fruit — they get to enjoy a truck-full of fruit every day. Once she arrives at the Park, it is non-stop. There are always lots of visitors to talk to about elephants and she always takes a lot of time to sit down and explain the problems facing the Thai elephant and how the visitors can help. She is fortunate to have a very loyal team supporting her made up of Thai’s and foreigner volunteers.
Volunteer prgramme
Lek runs a volunteer programme where people can stay for one or two weeks and help with the day-to-day care of the elephants. Volunteers shadow the mahouts and help out with the feeding, bathing and general care of all of the animals as well as general chores and handy-work around the Park. The volunteer programme began five years ago and in the early days would possibly see five or six volunteers each week. Today, she often sees over 20 volunteers at one time passing through her doors. She is so grateful for everyone’s support and she should be very proud of her project as in four short years, she has gone from rescuing seven elephants to over 30.
I asked Lek if she had a favourite elephant and she said ‘Absolutely no way, I love each of them with all of my heart; every one is special to me.’ She knows the intricacies of each of the 30 elephants including what sounds they make when they’re happy, where they most like to be touched and even how each of them likes to eat corn — apparently some peel it first!
Lek and her Nature Park have had their fair share of heartache. In 2002 her beloved rescued calf, Ging Mai, was tragically killed and in 2005, an adult elephant, Siam, died from an infection. When asked how she copes with these losses she simply says ‘I will never ever forget them and everything I do is in their memories, I just have to move on for the sake of the elephants that are suffering all over Thailand.’
I spoke with Lek about how she sees the future of the elephant in Thailand. She said that she hoped people all around the world will one day realise how wonderful elephants are and that people can work together to save them from extinction.
Lek is truly an inspirational woman. I hope that she will lead the way for many other elephant projects to follow in her footsteps and secure a future for Thailand’s elephants.
The volunteer programme consists of either a week or fortnights stay. The Park also offers shorter overnight stays and day trips. The sanctuary is an amazing place where you will find yourself at one with nature and nowhere else in northern Thailand are you able to get this close to elephants. For more information on Lek’s work and for information on how to contact her visit: www. elephantnaturepark.org.