Save Elephant Foundation is a Thai non–profit organization dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations.
Sangduen “Lek” Chailert grew up in a small hill tribe village north of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. When she was a young girl, her grandfather, a traditional healer, received a baby elephant named Tongkum (“Golden One”) as payment for saving a man’s life. Lek spent many hours with the young elephant and this ignited a passion that would guide her entire life, inspiring her to found the Save Elephant Foundation and become an internationally recognized leader for elephant welfare and conservation.
The Asian elephant is an endangered species, with an estimated 35,000-40,000 individuals remaining in Asia, and just 3,500-4,000 in Thailand. Populations have been dwindling due to loss of habitat and the illegal wildlife trade, and in Thailand there are almost as many captive elephants as wild, with most of the former working in the tourism and entertainment industries. Asian elephants are considered livestock with no legal protection, and historically were an integral part of the logging industry. Due to deforestation, logging with or without elephants is illegal (although it still takes place in nearby Myanmar), and with the end of the logging industry owners of elephants looked to find alternate ways to make money for their families. Some took to street begging, with their elephants cajoling tourists to part with their money for a photo-op, while others were sold to trekking camps to give rides, perform tricks, paint, and play music for a booming tourism industry.
As the national symbol of Thailand seeing elephants up close and personal is on every traveler’s to-do list, but what most tourists don’t realize is that while elephants are capable of performing tricks and stunts these are not natural behaviors for them. Young elephants, often taken away from their mothers before they are weaned, go through a training process known as phajaan – “the breaking of their spirit.” Phajaan is a form of torture, and its purpose is to establish dominance and fear in the young elephants so that they will obey and perform. Their continued obedience is ensured with the use of bull hooks, which painfully poke and prod the most delicate and sensitive areas on an elephant. Separated from their families, these “broken” elephants are often deprived of social interaction with other elephants.
At Elephant Nature Park – Save Elephant Foundation’s flagship program founded in 1995 – rescued elephants are free from such abuse. There are no rides, no tricks, no shows, and no bull hooks. The elephants have an opportunity to live their lives as closely as possible to elephants in the wild. They are free to form their own associations with other elephants; starting friendships, getting into squabbles, and competing for position as number one auntie when there’s a newborn at the park.
ENP currently provides refuge for over thirty elephants on a 250-acre parcel of land. Many have suffered injuries and abuse, both physical and mental, and need human assistance. ENP offers opportunities for visitors and volunteers to spend time with the herd, feeding them, bathing them, and simply being in their presence while helping out on the grounds planting trees, cutting corn, and building fences. They also learn about the plight of the Asian elephant and what they can do to help even after they’ve left the park and are back home.
Elephants are not the only animals that live at ENP. Any animal in need is taken in, and currently there are over 360 dogs that have found sanctuary at the park – many rescued from the floods in Bangkok in 2011. Something else I was delighted to discover is that ENP have a new cat rescue as well.
The park has reached full capacity and until more land is obtained they cannot rescue any more elephants. There is an on-going fundraising campaign to purchase an additional 200 acres of land across the river that intersects the property. Lek says, “It is the goal of the foundation to purchase this land and release some of our elephants there to roam freely all of the time, as well as to rescue additional elephants in the future. Ten years from now, I would love this to be a place where all of the elephants who live here are able to live without any human interaction.”
BLES strives to rescue and protect the elephants of Thailand from abuse and ultimate extinction. To realize its mission, BLES has targeted goals in protection, expansion and education.
Katherine Connor, having quit her job in England for a nine month adventure through Asia, found herself volunteering at an elephant hospital in northern Thailand just six weeks into her travels. While she was there a three month old elephant, born prematurely, was brought in with its mother. Katherine formed a bond with the bull calf, named Boon Lott, but when he was just six months old Boon Lott’s owner planned to sell him to a tourist camp and return his mother to the illegal logging trade. Elephants are not weaned from their mother’s milk until they are three years old, and without his mother Boon Lott would not survive. Katherine started a fundraising campaign to rescue the little elephant and negotiated an agreement to allow his mother to stay with him until he was naturally weaned. Sadly, during this time, Boon Lott suffered a variety of setbacks due to his already fragile health, but Katherine continued to raise funds for medical treatments and continued to do everything she could to keep him safe and secure. Just after his second birthday, Boon Lott succumbed to his injuries and passed away. During this time, Katherine realized her passion and mission was to help save the Asian elephant and she decided to stay in Thailand to establish Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in his memory.
Today BLES is home to over a dozen rescued elephants on 400 acres of forested land in northern Thailand. Their goal is to acquire more land so they can eventually release the elephants “into a protected environment where they can forage, interact, explore and live communally without fear” with an eventual “transition to independent living…in a self-reliant herd.” BLES is also fundraising to establish an on-site medical clinic, as the nearest hospital that can provide care for elephants is six hours away. This is a great distance to travel and prohibitively expensive; not only for the sanctuary’s elephants, but also for other domestic elephants in nearby villages. To date, the land has been acquired but funds are still needed for the construction of the facility.
BLES, like ENP, also provides sanctuary to any animal in need and is currently working to build an on-site medical center for cats and dogs that will also serve the local communities.