By 6pm sharp on our second day at Elephant Nature Park we had all filed into the assembly room and were anxiously waiting for Sangduen “Lek” Chailert – the woman who had inspired all of us to come here from around the globe and volunteer to shovel elephant poop and wield machetes in the hot, humid Thailand climate. The anticipation was so high it felt like we were waiting for a rock star. And Lek is a rock star of sorts. Or, as Craig so aptly put it, “Punk rock, full-on!” She has earned global respect for her tireless work rescuing abused elephants and providing them with a life free of abuse, as well as educating tourists about the horrors of phajaan, and elephant owners on better ways to care for their charges. She’s collaborated on laws that would provide protections for elephants and is an open and outspoken supporter of rights for all animals. She has won international awards and been featured in articles and documentaries seen around the world.
When visitors come here I want them to leave with the truth and go tell other people that the elephants here are just a few percent of the elephants that need to be rescued from abuse. I want them to think, “How many other elephants are still out there suffering and dying, working until the day they fall down and die from exhaustion?” I want them to educate others and tell people that it’s time for humans to be more kind to other living creatures.
Despite the accolades, every day is still a struggle at home. In her own country she has been persecuted, threatened, ridiculed, raided, disowned by her own family, and even forced to go into exile for a period of time. But she has never given up fighting for her beliefs, even when they go against her country’s long-held traditions.
Lek was radiant as she strode into the room, wearing a big smile and outfitted in her rubber boots and mud-spattered clothes. She is not some CEO who sits behind a desk insulated from the daily grind; she’s out with the elephants and mahouts putting in time helping with the hard, dirty work. When our volunteer group was tasked with cutting banana leaves in the heat of the afternoon, she was out there with us. Her primary job, however, is being an advocate for the elephants and educating those who work with them, and the tourists who want to see them. And, as we learned that night, she can command an audience, even if English is not her first language.
A few weeks earlier I had contacted Lek asking if she would be willing to give us thirty minutes out of her busy schedule to do an interview during our week volunteering at ENP. To my surprise, I received a quick reply saying she’d be happy to and I should just come find her when we arrived. This positive response speaks volumes about her. She doesn’t say “no.” This may be to her detriment as it causes her to take on too much at times, but it’s the embodiment of who she is. It’s also the reason why there are now over 400 dogs and 200 cats at an elephant sanctuary. She does not, cannot, turn away any animal that needs care.
Then there are all the cameras and interviews. When we were there we met a filmmaker who had been at ENP for three weeks working on a project, and the night of our interview there was a Thai superstar visiting the park to interview Lek. So why did she agree to do our interview in-between filmmakers and superstars? Because Lek understands the power of social media, and that the very best hope for the animals she loves is the education of the humans that want to interact with them. For every photo or interview she does, there will be at least one more person in the world who will learn something they didn’t know about the plight of these animals.
Craig already described how our interview began with the elephant-versus-camera incident (the elephant won) and after that commotion subsided I was invited to sit on the ground in the elephant barn next to Lek, who herself was seated underneath a four year old calf named Faa Mai, listening to her sing the elephant a lullaby. Lek means “small” in Thai, but despite her petite physical stature Lek’s comfort sitting amongst the world’s largest land mammal is clearly evident. There is a relationship between her and the elephants based on trust and mutual respect that is gently nurtured over time and at the elephant’s own pace.
As our conversation progressed, between my general nervousness to interview someone I admire, the darkening sky, the Thai superstar waiting for Lek, and having one of Faa Mai’s restless feet immediately next to my knee (leaving me wondering if it was going to be crushed like Craig’s camera), I knew we’d have to cut things short. I had one last question that I thought would end the interview on a joyful note, but Lek’s response couldn’t have been more opposite from what I expected. In hindsight maybe that was the perfect way to end things, because it is a reminder to us all that despite people like Lek doing some very good work the fight for elephants is far from over.
Could you please tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be, literally, surrounded by elephants?
Lek Chailert: First of all, I love elephants and I love all kinds of animals. Elephants are a very special animal for me because I connect with them. When I was sixteen years old I found a bull elephant forced to do logging work. He had a bad injury but his handlers still forced him to log. The elephant was screaming and his eyes showed a lot of pain. After I saw that, his eyes followed me in my mind, and his screaming was stuck in my head. So I thought that if I had any chance to do any work to protect animals, elephants were the ones I wanted to work for to protect.
The more I learned more about elephants the more I learned the truth and the tragedy behind their living conditions and how much they get abused. I decided to work for them and to work to help them.
You learned a lot about nature and your love of animals from your grandfather. Does your whole family feel similarly about animals?
Lek: I’m the one who really connected with my grandfather. He’s a shaman and he took me to the jungle and I learned quite a lot about nature from him. Of his grandchildren, I’m the one that learned the most from him. I have family who also work with elephants, but different from what I do. They work in elephant camps. So my work is quite different from theirs.
How many elephants do you have at Elephant Nature Park and what are their personalities like?
Lek: We have rescued over fifty elephants, but many of them are old and some of them are very sick. Some stay with us a couple of months and some stay a couple of years before passing away. When we rescue elephants and bring them here each one has a different personality. They’re like humans. Some of them are very stubborn, some have a sense of humor, some of them are very naughty, and some are very gentle.
I know a mother isn’t supposed to have a favorite, but do you have a favorite elephant?
Lek: I love all of them, but the baby elephants are the closest to me. Especially this girl here [Faa Mai].
Elephants are a very important symbol in Thai culture. Why do you think they’re treated so poorly?
Lek: People have always believed animals are different from humans, and I think that’s wrong. They think we’re better than animals.
How do you teach and explain to people that they shouldn’t go to elephant camps and shouldn’t go for elephant rides or otherwise participate in their exploitation?
Lek: Many people love to use animals for entertainment, and many love to see animals being used as entertainment. It’s very common, and the tourists don’t know the truth behind it. They want to have the time of their life, they want to ride an exotic elephant, they want to see an elephant show, and they love watching elephants paint. If we want to see that changed we have to educate people and explain to them the truth about it.
I think some people have a good time because they don’t know the truth, and if they did they wouldn’t do it.
In a conservative culture, how has being a woman impacted your conservation work? Has it made it more difficult for you?
Lek: Definitely. In Thailand, and in many Asian countries, people believe that women should stay at home. Especially in the hill tribe people, where I’m from, a woman is born to be a mother and should be at the back of an elephant and not in front. I have a lot of problems when I go to contact certain officials. I don’t exist in some of their eyes. Sometimes it takes me months to get paperwork from them. It’s a way of life for them. They feel that my world doesn’t exist. It’s very difficult here to be a woman.
Why do you think there’s resistance to the work you and others, like Edwin Wiek at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, do?
Lek: The government marked us as the enemy, in everything. When we speak they think, “Why should we listen? Why should we listen to Edwin as a foreigner? He shouldn’t come and stick his nose in Thailand’s business. Why should we listen to you as a woman? You’re from a hill tribe.” They don’t want us to do anything or say anything because they think we’re trying to damage Thailand as a country. So it’s not easy to get them to listen to us.
Visitors come to Elephant Nature Park with different amounts of understanding about elephants and the challenges they face both in Asia and throughout the world, and many of them describe their time here as “life changing.” What do you think they mean by that? What does being around elephants do to change people’s lives, even if they’re here for just a day?
Lek: I think it’s one thing. When people don’t know about elephants being abused they can’t see the bigger picture. But when they come here and they see the eight elephants we have who were blinded from slingshots or stabbed by hooks, the picture in front of them suddenly changes and they realize that these big, giant animals get abused. And they’re shocked by what they see.
What do you hope each visitor and volunteer takes away from their experiences here?
Lek: I want everyone who comes to the park to go back home with the truth. When you see elephants stand and rock… You know, I’ve seen people at circuses and zoos ask so many times, “Why do elephants rock their heads back and forth?” And the keepers always say, “Oh, because the elephants enjoy dancing!” People don’t know the truth, but when visitors come here and understand what’s happening to elephants and they see what we’re doing, they understand that [Elephant Nature Park] is like a home.
When we first rescued elephants this place felt like an insane asylum, because when the elephants arrived many of them were like zombies – they stood still and their eyes were empty. I could see that they have no spirit. It takes a long time for them to become elephants again. Some of them are lame, have broken hips, some are blind. They are the victims of abuse.
So when visitors come here I want them to leave with the truth and go tell other people that the elephants here are just a few percent of the elephants that need to be rescued from abuse. I want them to think, “How many other elephants are still out there suffering and dying, working until the day they fall down and die from exhaustion?” I want them to educate others and tell people that it’s time for humans to be more kind to other living creatures.
I just hope that when they come here their minds are changed and they want to make a difference, to be less selfish and have more respect for other living beings.
What does the sound of an elephant trumpeting evoke in you?
Lek: Elephants have different sounds. When they’re happy they sound so full of joy, but many times when they’re rescued and brought here they’re trumpeting. And some are trumpeting before they die, which I feel deep in my heart. It’s so painful. Their trumpeting is loud and sad and I feel like they’re saying that they miss the wild home they were first taken from. I hope that one day, before I die, I can make a home for them in the jungle, a real home, and I can hear their trumpeting of joy from being completely free.