Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert
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
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.
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
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
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.
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