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Elephant nation: Saving the big grays

'Asia hero' says rescue work 'makes my heart smile'

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – They say an elephant never forgets. But those
majestic creatures who are the national symbol of Thailand may be forgiven
for perhaps wishing they could forget the abuse, injury and death they've
suffered in a society where their elephant birth certificates often amount to
death sentences.

Their fate includes encounters with land mines that leave them with feet
blown off, torture from hooks, spears and knives in the hands of humans,
chain-saw attacks by ivory hunters, spine damage from trekking platforms
and even drug abuse.

Yet as the morning mist rises over the lush river valley in this slice of
heaven otherwise known as the "Elephant Nature Park," a herd of formerly
tortured and abused but surviving animals is making tracks to the Mae
Tang River, its pristine waters flowing silently under a sky turned purple
and orange by the rising sun.

They enter the water, one by one, males, aunties and babies alike. There's
Max, a giant 13-foot-tall elephant (said to be the second tallest elephant in
all of Thailand) whose legs were broken by an 18-wheel truck during the
homeless phase of his life. B.K. has only one tusk. After being drugged and
chained to a tree, ivory poachers took a chainsaw to his right rusk; B.K.
awakened and chased away the men before they could cut off the other

Jokia had both her eyes stabbed and shot out, because after giving birth to
a baby the baby rolled down a hill and died, and Jokia refused to continue

One by one, the elephants enter the water, submerge, and soon reappear.
They shake their ears emphatically and spray water from their long,
sensitive trunks. "Doot-doo-da-doot!" they trumpet, seemingly in unison. It
is an exhilarating scene.

Before long the "elis" are engaging in friendly trunk pulls and jumping in
happy playfulness.

Standing on the shore of the river and taking in this wildly maverick, idyllic
spectacle is the guardian angel of Thailand's elephants. Her jet black hair
falls over her slender shoulders as she smiles her electrifying smile by
flashing bright white teeth.

Her name is "Lek," which means "small" in the Thai language. At 5-feet, 2-
inches, it would be easy to dismiss Lek Chailert, instead of recognizing her
status as one of the most heroic people (man or woman) on planet Earth.

In fact, she's a woman that Paul McCartney, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and
Meg Ryan all have sought out regarding her work with Thailand's abused

elephants. She's been featured on CNN, Animal Planet, The Discovery
Channel, Time Magazine (selected as one of "Asia's Heroes") as well as
National Geographic. Yet since this remarkable Thai remains a kind and
humble woman; she would never tell you any of those things outright.

But she shares with WND the story of how she came to be the savior of
Thailand's elephants. It is a fairy tale about a little girl who was given an
elephant at age five that also includes the dark side of murder,
abandonment, slander, a courtroom showdown and physical assaults with
fists and guns.

The last chapter is yet to be written, but for now, it has culminated in her
becoming the human voice for Thailand's elephants.

The jungle girl

"It was long ago … I was just a little girl, about five years old, when my
grandfather, who was a shaman in a small village in Northern Thailand,
saved a man's life. Because of this deed my grandfather was given an
elephant which he in turn gave to me," Chailert told WND.

"I named the elephant 'Goldie.' When I first met her I found this creature to
be truly amazing. She looked so kind and so gentle. We become friends at
our very first meeting. I loved my new elephant so much and rode her
everywhere I went in the jungle. We used to play games with Goldie like
'Climb the Mountain.' Many of the children in our little village (nestled
between Thailand and Burma) would climb up Goldie's trunk, tail and ears.
Another time we found a toy gun, and my brother and I would play 'Army'
with Goldie. We'd pretend to shoot her. Then I would say 'Goldie, we shot
you but you are still standing up!' So she would dutifully obey and lay down
as if to say, 'Oh look … I just died!' Then she would get up again. This would
go on and on, 50 times in a row or even more."

Theories about elephants were jolted in 2002 when researchers

documented that elephants emit subsonic trunk calls at 30 Hz which can
travel up to 10 miles or more. Elephants also have another natural Internet
via the sensitive nerve endings on their feet. By stamping on the ground
they can send and pick up messages. This is probably why so many
elephants headed for high ground right before the 2004 Asian tsunami.
When elephants are sending out their subsonic trunk calls, if you look
closely (or even touch) you can see a small section of their frontal brain
area moving under their two-inch thick skin.

"As I grew up I continued to become closer to Goldie. My mother told us

there was gold (like gold bullion) inside of the elephant, and my brother
actually tried to climb inside Goldie to find it. One day, he was halfway
inside Goldie's mouth when my mother ran outside and saw this – shouting
'No!'" Chailert related.

"I was also becoming closer to many of the animals in the jungle. I would
find injured animals and bring them home to care for them. I would often
fight with my father about this … he was a hunter you see.

"That's one thing I have to thank my family for … they gave me the chance
to love and care to the other animals. When I was young my grandfather
rescued many wild animals caught in traps. He would heal them. He would
also let me to help him and taught me how to take care of those animals.
He called me the 'Little Doctor,' and I was so proud with that title. I fell in
love with all the animals I treated and made sure they were safe and
eventually returned back to jungle. My mother also supported me in loving
the animals by educating me and allowing me to have pets when I was

She said her favorite trait among elephants is "the way they love and care
for each other."

Lek hit her teen years and she started traveling to the Burma border in
order to help sick, abused and injured elephants.

Her life's calling was emerging, and while she was still looking through a
glass darkly, there came an irresistible calling of love, sacrifice and service
for the elephants.

"At first I went to the border of Burma with a Christian missionary … then I
started to go on my own. When I was in high school I wasn't really much of
a student. My teachers would tell me to open my backpack in order to see
my books, but inside there were no books, only magazines, film and
cosmetics. You see, I used to sell those items on the street in order to get
money to buy medicine for the elephants on the Thai-Burma border. They
were sick and injured and no one was there to help them. When I visited
them I saw the eyes of the elephants, which were dead eyes. And I was
heartbroken," she said.

"As time passed, my backpack got bigger and bigger as I sold more things
in order to buy more medicine for the elephants. They had become my life's
passion. I had antibiotics with me and learned all I could about medicine for
the elephants.

"I would rent a Jeep and go where no other veterinarian would go. There
were no more roads. One time, 100 people actually built a section of road
for me so I could turn my Jeep around. For 13 kilometers (more than six
miles) they pulled my Jeep through the mud with a strong rope," she said.

Later she attended the university and studied library science, because
officials wouldn't allow her in veterinary classes.

Years in the wilderness

But her love for elephants was now growing, and her trials were beginning.

"There was a man staging Thai boxing matches in Chiang Mai, featuring a
baby elephant with boxing gloves on. When he went around the city to ask
for money with the baby elephant, I followed him with a sign reading 'Don't
support this kind of elephant abuse.' Eventually the man punched me right
in the face. I was badly injured and my face was mangled. I had to wear a
neck brace. I was sent to the hospital and had a head scan. I saw stars.
There was pus and a terrible infection. I thought I would die. The man who
did this to me was fined 500 Baht. (About $3)," she said.

She had crossed over from being an eccentric, enthusiastic youth to

become a dues payer en route to a respected world-class activist on behalf
of elephants.

"I love them," she said. "I will never turn my back on them until the day I

Elephants don't abandon their children. They don't "trade up." They mate
for life. They don't abuse. They have served as tanks and armored
personnel carriers and to this day remain bulldozers.

Her fame soon spread. Organizations began paying attention to her

warnings about Thailand's elephant abuse. And opposition arose.

She's had a gun held to her head, she was called "traitor" by Thailand's
government, the "Bangkok Post" printed accusations against her, she lost
family and friends and her life was threatened.

In fact, it was during this time she was forced to run from house to house,
eluding the shadowy assassins dispatched to hunt her down and kill her.

Amazingly, the Princess of Thailand, Rangsoi Napadol Yukol, interceded for


"The princess contacted me and said, 'Lek they will kill you. You have to
come and live with me in the Royal Palace … no one will be able to hurt you
here.' (Thailand's current king is probably the most popular sovereign in
modern world. His collection of perfect white elephants is considered an
ancient symbol of the king's divine right to rule). She also told me, 'Lek,
you are a train with no brake – a kamikaze.' The princess found a lawyer for
me. And people gave me some money, $100 or $200 or $300 at a time."

But Lek couldn't stay locked up on the royal palace forever. She had to
leave if she was going to help the elephants. So she left, heading directly to
the streets where elephants needed her.

"People would spit on my family … restaurants would not serve them. They
told my little eight-year-old nephew that they would 'bury' me. My brother
cried. I had to adopt an alias. (Sirinya Chaidee). People felt I was hurting
Thailand as a boycott of tourism was being organized because of the
revelations of the elephant abuse. I was so scared. I cried and cried. But
then I thought of Mel Gibson in that movie 'Braveheart' and Russell Crowe
in 'Gladiator.' People can in fact change history and I felt that I would come

back and achieve victory for the elephants. I thought, 'I can take this
abuse! I must fight for the elephants!'"

She withstood attacks in the form of a special television episode about her,
offers from politicians for payments for her to shut up, and the hint of
treason for her work.

"One day I sat down along Pat Pong Road … I looked around at the filth and
I thought, 'Why don't [Thailand's elites] clean up this country?' I thought, 'I
am a thorn under their feet … this country can change and I won't give up. I
am a strong Buddhist. I will not kill or steal or have an affair. I will not lie.
The Buddha had a passion for animals and never wanted them to be

Her battles eventually took her into court.

"Karen hill tribes wearing no shoes came to the biggest courthouse in

Bangkok in order to testify on my behalf. They explained the cruel way in
which the elephants were treated. It was the first time anything like this
had happened – people coming barefoot into the court. I mean, they came
all the way from the Burma border on the train … just for me. They helped
me to take on Thailand's mass media in court and win. I was able to clear
my name," she said.

Still, opposition remained. "Only the Princess of Thailand stood up to say,

'This woman is speaking the truth.' In the mass media, some in my family
denounced me as a 'Black Sheep.' Lies were spread that the abuse of the
elephants was happening in Burma, and not in Thailand," she said.

At Lek's trial, the Karen tribal members testified about the methods they
use to train and control the elephants and where this "abuse" was taking
place – inside the borders of Thailand. (Logging was made illegal in
Thailand during the late 1980's. Yet land mines, drug wars and the physical
stress of tourist-based elephant trekking continued to devastate the
elephants in the region at large).

It was after this trial that Lek and Thailand's elephant began to turn the
corner. A Texan who supplied coffee beans to Starbucks heard about Lek's
work with the elephants, and he donated the land which would become her
Elephant Nature Park without condition. Now the framework was in place
for a safe haven for the 4,500 elephants left in the nation, down from the
100,000 as of 1900.

We don't need a baby elephant with two dead parents

But perhaps because of her growing successes, the attacks continued: Lek
and her staff members were detained on payday when a clandestine and
elite military/police unit showed up. There were sacks placed over the
heads of the staff. One staff member had his face rearranged with the back
end of an M-16 rifle. Stones were thrown at their cars. Lek was called
various names, none of them printable.

And then came the worst possible. Lek had rescued a three-day-old baby
elephant stuck between two trees in the jungle. The mother had been shot
dead for daring to eat from some farmer's field.

"Never before in history has it been documented that an elephant less than
a week old survived without the mother," Chailert told WND. "I stayed up
with the baby, whom I named Ging Mai, day and night for six days. Then on
the seventh day, I passed out from complete exhaustion. I had been giving
the baby elephant milk from a bottle … and in the middle of the night Ging
Mai woke me up to kiss me. It was then I knew he would live."

Lek's miraculous rescue of Ging Mai thrilled elephant lovers everywhere,

but only served to further infuriate Thailand's power brokers, who were still
determined to somehow punish her.

"Sometimes I felt such fear … that I was walking alone on a dark road,"
Chailert continued. "Many times I was set up by government people trying
to put dirt on my name. For the last of couple years I've had hard times
because of the elephants I rescued. We were constantly disturbed by
government officials who allegedly came to check on us, but instead
threatened and did anything they could to make our work too difficult and
inconvenient to continue.

"Then one day a group of men came to see Ging Mai … 'veterinarians' …
they said the government needed to check on my baby elephant. This was
just days before his first birthday. They injected him with cyanide. Ging Mai
ran to the lake and drank and drank water … I ran to him and he pushed at
me … his eyes were all red. He was in agony and screaming. He died in my
arms," she said.

"Why, why, why did they murder my baby?" she said, while weeping almost
hysterically in her Chiang Mai office.

Australian Michelle Kobylka, who has volunteered at the Elephant Nature

Park over the past half decade, (and aspires to become a veterinarian,
perhaps studying at Texas A&M) told WND that when Ging Mai was
murdered, it left a huge vacuum at the park.

"We had this cart with wheels, and one of our elephants, Hope, used to play
on it with Ging Mai. Ging Mai was only a baby. And when Ging Mai was
murdered, Hope wouldn't eat or play or do anything for days on end. I sat
out in the field, crying and Hope came right up to me and put her trunk
around me to offer consolation."

Asia's Hero

"Finally 'Time Magazine' announced me as 'Time's' 'Hero of Asia,'" Lek

continued. "It seemed that I would finally find the light at the end of the

tunnel, and the door of my dark room had opened. I felt safe again, not just
only for me, but for our elephants as well.

"Most injuries to the elephants come from humans. I can say that the first
reason is greed. People don't understand the elephant's nature. They use
the elephant like a machine for making money. Sometimes when the
elephant [is] sick they still force them to work – and then when the
elephant rebels against such work they start to abuse the elephant in a
cruel way."

Lek Chailert has come a long way from her childhood and teen crusades to
help Thailand's elephants. These days she supervises a staff of 75 men and
women who care for 33 elephants, including a little baby named, (no
surprise) "Goldie." Every day, visitors from around the world come to the
Elephant Nature Park in order to feed (with corn, pineapples, bananas and
watermelon at a cost over $250,000 per year), bathe and fuss over Lek's
elephants. It is here that visitors can take an excruciatingly long, slow walk
with the gigantic yet gentle Max to the Mae Tang River for his bath, petting
his trunk while his crushed legs make the journey.

There's also the possibility for a special photography shoot arranged by

Lek, even amongst the baby elephants and their massive and protective

Lek possesses a magical quality, an aura of humility and greatness. When

she asked this writer to go to Sri Lanka on her behalf to investigate the
plight of elephants at the baby elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, I dutifully
went without question.

While at the Elephant Park, visitors also can listen to talks about the
elephants given by expert guides. A film is also shown by the staff,
(Jennifer Hile's excellent "Vanishing Giants") though the documentation of
elephant abuse sometimes arouses great sadness and even anger. More
than a few visitors told WND that capital punishment should be invoked for
maiming and killing an elephant. One visitor remarked, "I'd have absolutely
no problem with that."

Former U.S. Navy Seal Mike Kelley, who saw the film, said, "You know I
really love animals … elephants especially … but what the people do to the
elephants …" his voice trailing off.

Says Chailert, "The volunteers and visitors provide most of the funds we
get to help to support our elephant project. Some of our volunteers who
stayed at the park help us raise money after they leave. Also, some school
children around the world have adopted a few of the elephants and have
helped support them.

"To see the elephants that have been rescued from very bad conditions …
when they first arrive at the park they [are] like the living dead. Their eyes
are empty and they are so skinny. Yet today I find them happy, joining new
family groups, healthy and starting to play again. That is the most joyful
thing to me and makes my heart smile," she said.

Among Chailert's many crusades is the "Jumbo Express," an outreach to win
the hearts and minds of the local hill tribes (Hmong, Karen and others) and
teach them how to love and care for elephants through positive

Along with two professional veterinarians (one of whom hails from India),
teams of volunteers (mostly college students, including veterinary
students) they trek through the jungles of Northern Thailand in an effort to
assist the injured elephants. Some projects include handing out presents at
a local elementary school or undergoing back-breaking labor to build a
community center.

Janna Schurer of Canada and Alexandra Bowes of Great Britain are

archetypes of the new breed of elephant whisperer. Tall, blonde, pretty and
well conditioned, these college students are not averse to getting their
hands dirty, be it by handing out medicine for sows in a dark, rainy Karen
village, or engaging in the aforementioned back-breaking labor.

Says Schurer, "Sometimes I think we have to consider why the people are
so cruel to the elephants. Imagine being 'them.' Imagine their fear of these
giant animals that could so easily kill you. There's that other side to the
whole question … why do they do what they do?"

Bowes, who spent part of her youth in Africa, said, "It used to be the vet
schools were filled with men. Now it's the other way around. When I do field
work in the UK, some farmers wonder if I am qualified. I have to show them
that I am qualified. Regardless, being in the field and volunteering is
important to the future of any vet student.

"During the past months I was able to infiltrate an elephant camp, and I
secretly took footage of elephants being tortured while being forced to
paint pictures. You can see this kind of footage … the painting I mean … all
over But people don't know what goes on behind the scenes
as the elephants are tortured with knifes and hooks to make them paint. I
hope to soon publish this footage on in the fall when I return
to the UK."

Women like Schurer and Bowes are the new face and hope for Thailand's
elephants, whether through their hidden cameras or the sweat of their
brow. They plan to carry on Lek's work, and teach the coming generation
about what has been done to and for the elephants, as well as the work
which remains incomplete.

Is international cooperation the answer? Some have floated the idea of a

major transnational consortium or grouping of the major elephant nations –
akin to the G-8. These nations would include Thailand, Burma, the
Indonesian island of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Namibia and
Botswana. These nations could hold periodic meetings and form strategies
to help their respective elephant populations. These nations, be they
Buddhist, Hindu, Maoist, Marxist and/or fascist, could put aside their
differences in an effort to show solidarity with all the world's elephants.

History starts now

As for her ultimate goal, Chailert said, "One day I want to see the elephants
in Thailand finally have a real home. I want to see them living in freedom –
elegantly -- in their own kingdom. My dream for the future of the Elephant
Nature Park is to have the park for the elephants that we rescued featuring
24 hours per day of freedom in their safe homeland."

What's left now for her work? To start, laws could and should be enforced
to make it illegal to profit from an elephant begging on the streets. Such
laws do exist but they are not uniformly enforced. Second, more
protections could be instituted for elephants.

Also, the centuries-old violent and torturous "crush" or special cage where
a soon-to-be domesticated elephant's spirit is broken while long carpentry-
style nails are sometimes stabbed into its inner ear should be re-examined.

And the forced "painting" by the elephants as depicted on

must be exposed and forever ended.

What would Lek like?

She's already discussed with her Australian associate, Roy Fudge, the idea
of buying all of Thailand's 3,000 domestic elephants.

Fudge, who personally bought an abused elephant, told WND, "If you look
around at what some of these major soccer stars in the UK are making and
compare that to what it would cost to buy all 3,000 of the elephants, it
doesn't really seem like an astronomical amount of money."

According to Chailert, buying all 3,000 domestic elephants in Thailand

would cost "around 900 million Baht." That would be about $28 million, just
about the same as the pro-rated salary for New York Yankees pitcher Roger
Clemens for the 2007 baseball season.

There also have been proposals for land to be set aside for Thailand's
elephants. The Thai government owns huge tracts of land in Northern
Thailand. Such a de facto "homeland" offers great promise on several

Additionally, consider that the nation of Borneo has set up an elite unit in
which elephant rescuers, including veterinarians, a sharp shooter (armed
with tranquilizers) and a super mahout/guide, slip into the jungle where
needed. They perform surgery on the elephants on site in the jungle. The
elephants in Borneo number around 1,600. Some leaders of the herds are
monitored in real time by state-of-the-art tracking devices.

Since Thailand's 5th Special Forces Regiment sits only a few miles down the
road from Lek Chailert's Elephant Nature Park, it is not hard to imagine
some form of synergy emerging and a similar elite elephant unit being
duplicated in Thailand.

Donations for Thailand elephant rescue efforts: Account Name: Elephant
Nature Park Account No501-3-08706-7 Siam Commercial bank Thapae
Branch Chiang Mai Swift Code: SICO-TH-BK

"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That's
the essence of inhumanity"

George Bernard Shaw

"Far Beyond Pearls Is Her Value"

Sangduan ("Lek") Chailert is an accomplished woman. She is pioneering the
movement to end the abuse of elephants, educating people about their
plummeting numbers, and finding harmonious ways we can share this earth
together with the elephants. I met Lek while visiting the Elephant Nature
Park in Thailand. This November Lek was honored in Time Magazine(Asian
version) as a "Hero of Asia 2005" for her activism for elephants. Lek has
created an elephant haven in Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park, the only
one of its kind in that country. It is a touch of heaven for elephants, most
who have survived a great portion of their lives in extreme hardships,
abused and tortured. There is an elephant who has had all her legs broken.
There is a blind elephant who has had both of her eyes shot to pieces with
a bb gun, horrific abuses. What the elephants now experience is an
abundance of love, and miraculously great healing begins to happen.
Elephants that were not predicted to survive begin to feel hope. There is
hope. The elephants at the park have formed four families and they seem
happy and joyed to be there. Each family has a baby or child it has adopted
and raises. To great celebration, one baby elephant was recently born at
the Elephant Nature Park. That baby will never have to experience the
abuse by humans that its parents lived.

The elephants at Lek's Elephant Nature Park have the side of a mountain to
jungle around on and be elephants, and a river to bathe and play in. Each
elephant has a mahout, an elephant care-giver who watches over them with
love, to help the elephant avoid dangerous situations like stumbling into a
neighboring banana or other crop field where the elephant could be shot.
The mahouts at Lek's place are learning a new way to be with the
elephants. Almost every "domesticated", not free in the wild, elephant that
is seen in Thailand has been sent through a process called "breaking the
spirit" of the elephant. The details of that horrible process is documented
in a special Lek did with Discovery Channel. Basically, the elephants are
taken from their mothers at a very young age and beaten for weeks on end

until they are submissive. Lek's message is that elephants do not need to
be beaten but instead loved to win respect. This is a revolutionary premise
on a planet where brute force has been a dominating factor. In a place,
where elephants will kill their abusive mahouts and by-standers, or commit
suicide by inhaling their last breath and then stepping on their trunks, or
lie down and refuse to get up even if severely beaten, what is desperately
needed are other alternatives and working solutions so that the interaction
can be beneficial for elephants and humans.

The elephant trekking business is big money in Thailand. At Lek's I learned

the back spine of an elephant is not meant to carry people, only near their
necks is strong enough to support comfortably a person. Yet every
elephant trek I saw in Thailand features people, usually 2 or 3 riding on an
elephants back. It is very popular to go on these treks, but people don't
realize the inhumane treatment almost every elephant has suffered,
endured, and/or lives in daily. Lek's park proves you can run a successful
place with elephants and not have to put the mahouts, the tourists, and
elephants at risk or grave danger. The tide is changing within Thailand
because of the attention Lek's not-for-profit Elephant Nature Park has
received through media and word of mouth. Lek has teamed with an
organization that is training elephant mahouts to earn the respect of an
elephant by love. She has paired with Monks to preserve the jungle areas
so that elephants can have a place to roam and call their home. Lek is
continuously educating guests at the park and elephant owners, rescuing
elephants, or arranging medical attention for elephants in need in remote
locations in Thailand. Her good will is spreading to the care of African
elephants too. It is the hope that elephant business owners will realize that
it is financially possible to have elephant friendly tourism without the
cruelty practices.

Lek's journey has been in uphill climb. Her life has been threatened for
exposing the ill treatment of elephants. One of her baby elephants that she
rescued, nursed, and nurtured as her own, and was also featured in the
Discovery Channel documentary, was given cyanide by someone posing as
a guest to the Elephant Nature Park. Killing her might cause too much
international attention but killing her baby elephant was an emotional knife
wound to her heart. Lek has not been stopped and the good words about
the Elephant Nature Park are spreading like wild fire in tourist towns like
Chaing Mai in Thailand. I imagine and hope there will be more elephant
friendly havens in the near future. It is the leadership and progressive
attitude of Lek, Thailand's “elephant whisperer”, other ele lovers, and
caring humans that are making an elephant friendly world possible.

Visit, volunteer, and support the magic, the testaments of forgiveness and
healing, the grand, intelligent, and family-oriented world of elephants, at
the amazing and beautiful Elephant Nature Park, or on-line. Perhaps we can
let Lek inspire us to become more conscious of the many cruelty practices
that exist in our homelands and by exercising our energy and money
wisely, end them. The elephants at the park deeply touched my heart with
their stories, compassion, and ability to forgive, and live and love even
after terrible trauma. The day I spent with the elephants was my favorite
day in Thailand. I only recommend that if you visit the Elephant Nature Park
like I did that you stay there more than my one day. I was just getting to
know some of the 20+ elephants at the park when the sun began to set and

my ride prepared to drive me back to Chaing Mai. For more information on
the elephant park visit their website:

The Elephant Whısperer

Linda Vergnani reports from Surin, N.E. Thailand, on the latest rescue
mission of “Lek” Chailert, “Mother Theresa of the Elephants”. The Thai
animal champion is introducing ecotourists to a new pachyderm park.

Two kilometres of tables, laden with melons, pumpkin, corn and other
bounty line the streets of Surin as excited crowds gather for the annual
Elephant Buffet in November.

Mahouts urge their charges down the road and suddenly the city centre is
filled with 240 elephants. Tall bulls with impressive tusks, ebullient
adolescents and cows with squealing calves shackled to them lollop on soft
feet towards the tables.

Bristly trunks reach out and grab select morsels: curling around ripe
watermelons; encircling bunches of turnip-like root vegetables; snuffling
beneath the tables for fallen bananas. When their elephants are sated, the
mahouts ride up to a stand being run by a diminutive woman with a
radiant, broad-cheeked face. She and a team of international volunteers
hand each mahout a green “care package”.

The woman is Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature

Foundation, whose remarkable work in rescuing and rehabilitating abused
elephants has earned her the title, “Mother Theresa of the Elephants”. Her
foundation is dedicated to saving the elephants of Thailand and ensuring
animals in captivity are treated humanely.

“We used to have 100,000 elephants in Thailand and now there are just
3,000. We need to protect them,” Chailert tells me. The packages handed
out by the team are part of her campaign to win over the mahouts and
persuade them to treat their charges better. “I want to build a bridge of
friendship with them.”

She is educating mahouts to train and control elephants with positive

rewards, rather than the old-fashioned method, which includes painful jabs
to the head with traditional elephant hooks.

Surin was once famous for its wild elephant hunters, who captured, broke
in and sold elephants to loggers and farmers in Thailand and surrounding
countries. Now with forest replaced by farmland, most of Surin’s remaining
elephants are chained and used as beasts of burden.

Chailert was invited to Surin to assist the provincial government to

establish a sustainable tourism initiative in its new 809-hectare elephant
reserve. The governor has urged the owners of 300 street elephants,
mainly used for begging in the cities, to bring them “home” to the forested

Named a “Hero of Asia” by Time magazine for her conservation efforts,

Chailert says she is delighted the Surin government has decided to improve
the lives of elephants.

“They want us to help them start up a world-class sanctuary. I have come

here because I want them to manage the elephants in a sustainable way.”

The foundation has begun a pilot project where money paid by

international volunteers is helping to provide an alternative income for
mahouts prepared to move their elephants into the reserve. The owners
want to continue making a living from these valuable animals so they will
not simply release them into the wild.

Currently the project operates for just a week every month, when volunteer
groups come to Surin to assist mahouts in caring for the elephants. The
forest in the reserve needs to regenerate, so the volunteers help grow and
harvest food crops for the animals.

Jeff Smith, manager of the foundation’s Surin Project, says: “We are
working with the provincial government and the local people to get
elephants off the street, off their chains and into their natural habitat. Our
volunteers are building a new home for these elephants.”

The Surin Project draws from the experience of Chailert’s highly successful
Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai. Officials from Surin have already
visited the reserve to discover how it works.

In this verdant park, more than 30 abused or disabled elephants – rescued

from logging camps and street begging – today graze in small family herds.
Among them is an elephant whose foot was blown off by a landmine, along
with another who was blinded with a slingshot by a mahout after it raided a
vegetable garden.

The park mahouts use positive reinforcement to manage the animals.

Chailert is training some of the baby elephants born here with rewards and
gentle talk to demonstrate that these methods really work. She radiates a
calm joy when she is with her beloved elephants.

Visiting the park, an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, I watch

Chailert sitting on the ground of a stall, singing lullabies to wrinkly baby
Pha Mai. The youngster, who was born at the park, stands swaying above
her, its trunk curled tenderly around her face.

Eventually its eyes begin shutting and she helps the baby lay down, then
strokes it soothingly until it falls into a deep slumber. “I believe these
animals are like us, they are part of our family,” explains Chailert. “They
love it when I sing. Elephants need us to speak nicely to them, to be soft
and gentle so they can learn how to be soft and gentle with us.”

She first bonded with these great beasts as a five-year-old in the Karen
village of Baan Lao. Her grandfather, a traditional healer, was given a
retired logging elephant as a gift from a grateful patient whose life he had
saved. “She was this huge giant, but so gentle,” explains Chailert. “She
somehow connected with me and made me realise that if you treat these
animals gently then they give the love back.”

She decided to start a sanctuary for the animals after seeing the shocking
state of some of the chained elephants in the logging camps. She bought
her first elephant in 1992 and raised money to start the foundation. It
funds projects like Jumbo Express, which offers free veterinary treatment
to elephants as well as medical services to the mahouts and villagers who
live alongside them.

Chailert wants the government to introduce a bill of rights for all animals.
She says domesticated elephants have no legal protection in Thailand and
are treated as livestock.

“My job is to speak out for animals. I don’t believe in using animals to
entertain people in any way, especially the elephants dancing, performing,
giving circus performances. I don’t agree with that.

If I have a choice, I’d rather the elephant stay alone. You can see them and
feed them rather than ride them.”

At her park, volunteers help the trained staff tend to the elephants;
collecting and preparing food for them, assisting with community outreach
programs and even building shelters. Day visitors delight in feeding the
animals and helping mahouts bathe them.

Sitting on a platform, observing the park’s elephants slide joyously around

a mud bath below, Chailert says: “My goal is to give them 24-hour
freedom.” The foundation is working with volunteers and local communities
to re-forest vast areas of land. Eventually, Chailert aims to release the
healthiest elephants in nearby Elephant Haven, a 1.4 sq km re-vegetated
forest. For her, the Surin project is the culmination of a lifelong campaign
to protect elephants.

When I meet Chailert in Surin at the Elephant Buff et and Round-up weeks
later, I notice in the town numerous mahouts begging for food for their
elephants. She and her team are deeply concerned about the condition of
some of these animals.

They discuss malnourished calves that are too small for their age. They
point out the chains that have cut deeply into some

elephants’ legs. They note the bleeding puncture marks left by the
elephant hooks in their foreheads.

The new reserve could provide a better life for many of these beasts.
Chailert says: “We will use the money from volunteers to pay the mahouts
so they can set the elephants free.

If they want, the mahouts can make lots of money from home stays; by
planting crops to sell to us and helping us plant trees.”

We get a glimpse of the future when we travel through flooded rice

paddies, past the traditional elephant village of Ta Klang to the new
elephant reserve. Here Jeff Smith shows us a small herd of elephants,
including a cute baby eating some cut cane in a clearing among the trees.

It looks like a wild herd, but until recently these animals were in circuses or
begging. The forest in the reserve has to regenerate, so the elephants need
supplementary fodder.

The six mahouts caring for these animals have volunteered to stop using
elephant hooks; guiding the elephants with their hands and quiet
commands, they lead them to a nearby field of sugarcane where visitor
volunteers are slashing down great bundles of cane for the beasts.

One volunteer, Erika Sullivan, a Canadian veterinarian, says: “I usually

work with small animals. The elephants are such beautiful animals, with
personalities like humans, or cows, or dogs.”

Later in the day, the animals amble to the Moon River, a tributary of the
Mekong. The baby emits a tinny toy trumpet sound as it wades in with its
elders. Loading watermelons into canoes, the volunteers take the fruit out
to the frolicking elephants.

Mahout Sa-ngad Padphai, who is caring for a pregnant elephant, says:

“This is a good idea because it gives us more time with the elephants. The
elephants can live well and the mahouts can live well.”

Smith says: “It’s exciting and challenging working with Lek. I think she has
brilliant ideas about how to work with elephants so that people still

Already there is a waiting list of 20 mahouts eager to join the programme.

By mid-2010 there should be sufficient volunteers to keep the programme
running all year round. Smith concludes: “This will be the biggest and best
Asian elephant sanctuary in the world, presenting lots of opportunities for
mahouts and their families for generations.”

Chailert says it will take time to educate mahouts that ecotourism can
provide an alternative income. “I know tourists from around the world who
would want to see elephants living in total freedom.”

Chiang Mai, Thailand —Canadian Jeff Smith doesn't seem to notice the
massive Asian elephants ambling past the construction site as he continues
what looks like a game of charades with his Thai work crew.

"I'm learning more and more Thai every day," says the 26-year-old
engineer/project manager of Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai,
Thailand. "But I'm never sure if their nodding heads and smiles mean they
understand me and my hand gestures until I see what they've actually

The former Junior Canadian ice dance champion has traded in his skates for
a degree in environmental engineering and the challenges of working in the
wilds of northern Thailand. "If you think me talking about building plans
with these guys looks funny, you should see their faces when I try to
explain figure skating to them," Smith says with a laugh. The Orillia, Ont.,
native spent many years training at Barrie's Mariposa School of Skating.

"I wanted to do some environmental volunteering while my friend and I

were backpacking through Southeast Asia," explains the University of
Waterloo grad. "I came to Elephant Nature Park to volunteer for a couple of
weeks and loved it so much I ended up staying for three months."

A 386-hectare reserve located 56 kilometres north of Chiang Mai, Elephant

Nature Park is dedicated to the conservation and care of Thailand's
threatened population of domestic Asian elephants. Even though these
majestic animals are revered in Thailand, their future here could be grim.
There were 100,000 elephants a century ago, 25,000 a decade ago and
today, only 5,000 elephants survive in Thailand, an overall decline of 95 per

Logging was banned in 1989, putting most of Thailand's domestic elephants

out of work. Tourism has now taken over as the main employer; at tourist
trekking camps in northern Thailand, in circus-like shows, and panhandling
in city streets where tourists pay to feed the elephants bananas.

Elephant Nature Park offers a rare alternative to such tourist fare, giving
visitors a more natural, humane experience, including feeding and bathing
this growing family of "saved" domestic elephants. As well, there is the
opportunity to interact with these amazing animals as they wander freely in
open fields, through hilly jungle-like forests and splash along winding

Elephant Nature Park's founder and director Sangduen Chailert, known as
"Lek" (which mean "little one" in Thai), leads the growing movement for
more humane treatment of elephants in Thailand.

"We need very quickly to educate people and do something to save these
beautiful creatures,'' says the country's one-woman humane society.
"Without elephants Thailand is like an empty country. I will work to help
elephants until I die... I will never stop!"

Recently voted Time magazine's 2005 Asia Hero of the Year in the activist
category, this petite Thai woman continues to fight big battles for the giant
charges she has rescued over the past 10 years, bringing them to live in
the natural sanctuary of Elephant Nature Park.

Blind elephant Jokia was adopted by Lek in 1999. Jokia had stopped
working, after suffering a miscarriage while dragging heavy timber loads
up steep hills at an illegal lumber camp. Then, in an attempt to get her
working again, she was blinded by slingshots and arrows.

Hope was just six days old when Lek came to his rescue. A farmer had killed
Hope's mother, and the orphaned baby was discovered near death three
days later. Now a big, boisterous 5-year-old, Hope is another living
testament to Lek's loving, training and life-long commitment to Thailand's

Lek hopes that giving visitors and volunteers some quality time with Hope,
Jokia and the rest of her rescued herd at Elephant Nature Park will
encourage tourism to evolve toward this kind of more natural experience.

"I can't keep up," says Canadian Cally Ashby, hand-feeding a massive white
elephant named Mae Boom Ma, who wraps her trunk around the cucumbers
and pops them into her mouth faster than the Port Hope woman can hand
them to her. Bananas, watermelon and squash are also on the lunch menu
(just a fraction of the 225 kg of forage these elephants will eat on average
per day).

After lunch, it's down to the river for a bath and splash with these massive
creatures, obviously in their element. Cally and her friends, 23-year-old
Port Hope twins Rosie and Evelyn Dell get almost as wet as the elephants,
thanks to the playful splashing of both the elephants and their mischievous
mahouts (elephant trainers).

The two baby elephants Tong Jan and Kanoon make short work of their
bath, spraying sand on themselves (and everyone in the general vicinity)
before heading off with the rest of the herd and park guests for the daily
walk in the park.

While day visitors head back for the hour-long journey to Chiang Mai,
weekly volunteers settle in for a tasty Thai buffet dinner and surprisingly
comfortable sleep on the mosquito-netted mattress situated on the floor of
the rustic sleeping huts.

"Volunteers can be as busy or relaxed as they choose," park host Michelle
Cullen tells us. "Jobs vary from bathing and feeding elephants to helping
with their basic health care. One of our conservation projects involves tying
holy Buddhist cloth on trees throughout the rain forest, protecting them
from cutting (according to a Thai religious belief). Or you can always help
with building and maintenance around the park."

Ottawa's Megan Ironside has spent much of her volunteer time teaching
English to eager mahouts, while learning about local and tribal lifestyles
and culture. "I've been a volunteer at Elephant Nature Park for five weeks
and I hope to come back here in October on my honeymoon," the 27-year-
old tells us.

One of the highlights of the volunteer program is an overnight adventure at

a sanctuary known as Elephant Haven — hiking high through the rainforest
as the elephants head to their mountain-top retreat. With our sleeping
bags spread over grass mats and wrapped in mosquito nets in the bamboo
hut, we relax around a campfire under the stars. The elephants' bells chime
in the distance as the contented creatures enjoy their night of freedom in
this hilltop haven.

Early the next morning, we help the mahouts round up any errant
elephants for the hike back to the park. Considering their size, it can be
surprisingly tricky to spot these massive creatures in the dense rain forest.
One of them, mischievous Jungle Boy, knows tricks like how to plug his
elephant bell with mud and sticks to stop it from ringing and giving him

After just a few fascinating days as volunteers at Elephant Nature Park, it's
easy to see why Smith has returned to Chiang Mai to continue the
environmental engineering work he started as a volunteer.

"I feel like I can really make a difference here. It's great to be able to use
my university degree and be so involved in all aspects of a project," Smith
explains of his role, overseeing everything from water resource
management to building design and construction, volunteer recruitment
and administrative work alongside park founder, Lek.

"When things aren't going right on the building site or at the office, I just
take an hour and hang out with one of the elephants, " Smith says. "It's the
best therapy you could ever have."

For more on the visitor and volunteer programs at Elephant Nature Park

Activists Denounce Thailand's Elephant "Crushing" Ritual

It's a sound not easily forgotten. Just before dawn in the remote highlands
of northern Thailand, west of the village Mae Jaem, a four-year-old elephant
bellows as seven village men stab nails into her ears and feet. She is tied
up and immobilized in a small, wooden cage. Her cries are the only sounds
to interrupt the otherwise quiet countryside.

The cage is called a "training crush." It's the centerpiece of a centuries-old

ritual in northern Thailand designed to domesticate young elephants. In
addition to beatings, handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to
"break" the elephants' spirit and make them submissive to their owners.

"It's a ritual that exists, in varying forms and degrees of cruelty, in virtually
every country in Asia that has domesticated elephants," explained Richard
Lair, an American expatriate and international relations officer for
Thailand's Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang. Lair has studied
domesticated elephants for more than 20 years and is author of the UN
report Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in

"The people believe that to control the animal they have to do something to
make the elephant feel fear and pain," said Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, a well-
known Chiang-Mai-based activist who runs Jumbo Express, a program
bringing free veterinary care to these animals. She's an outspoken critic of
the crush.

Born in the small mountain village of Baan Lao, in Northern Thailand,

Chailert's devotion to elephants began at an early age. She is the
granddaughter of a shaman, a traditional healer, who received an elephant
named Golden One as payment for saving a man's life. From the time
Chailert was five years old, "Goldy" was considered a part of the family.
Elephants have been a core part of her life since.

Chailert runs a sanctuary called Elephant Heaven for abused elephants and
constantly campaigns on their behalf. Her exposure of the brutal crush and
her conservation campaign has raised international awareness and also
provoked local resistance.

Beasts of Burden, Cultural Icons

Thais often say elephants helped build their nation. For centuries they were
Thailand's tanks, taxis, and bulldozers. As such, a contradiction developed:
These beasts of burden became cultural icons. They are symbols of the
king's divine right to rule, of good luck, even religious icons.

But the elephants' status as cultural icons hasn't stopped a slide to near-
extinction in Thailand. The World Conservation Union, based in Gland,
Switzerland, lists the Asian elephant as endangered.

A century ago, there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand. That number has
fallen 95 percent, primarily due to loss of habitat. Of the 5,000 elephants
left, about half are domestic, according to Lair. Little is done to protect
them, although they remain an important part of the Thai economy.

Thai law is ambivalent. "Domestic elephants are considered livestock," said

Lair. "Under Thai law, they're no different from buffalo or cattle." Small
fines, rarely enforced, are the only penalties for abusing livestock.

Most domestic elephants now work in tourism. Worldwide fascination with

these giants fuels a thriving industry. Travelers from around the world pay
top dollar to take elephant rides in the forest, or watch them perform in
shows. But the process of domesticating these animals is something few
outsiders see.

Brutal Training, Black Magic

For example, elephants in the crush are taught to raise their feet on
command so owners can easily move them. Men give orders enforced by
stabbing at the animals' legs with sticks that have nails on the end.
Mistakes are punished with beatings.

Elephants are typically covered in bloody wounds and rope burns when
released from the crush after three to six days. They are quickly tied up
again; the training continues for weeks.

"They say they have to let the elephant taste pain, then the elephant will
understand how to listen," said Chailert. But brutality can produce the
opposite effect, she argued.

Traditionalists defend the crush. Saehai, a 91-year-old shaman from Chiang

Dao who goes by only one name, has been a spiritual leader of breaking
ceremonies in northern Thailand for half a century. "Only one way to do
this, not any other," he explains firmly. "If elephant doesn't go though this,
elephant can't be tamed."

Villagers believe the shaman uses black magic to help tame the elephant
and sever ties to the mother. Saehai feels pride in his work because
domestic elephants generate much-needed income in undeveloped areas.
He is an honored guest at every village he visits.

Like many rural villagers, Saehai argues that to control animals that can
eventually weigh as much as 10,000 pounds, it's essential they fear their
keepers. He believes it's the only way to safeguard against the animal
kicking, goring, or otherwise injuring people with whom they work.

Chailert believes it's time for Thai people to rethink the centuries-old
tradition. "I think it should be stopped. We have many different ways to
train elephants; we don't have to be so cruel." She argues that positive

reinforcement is a more effective and humane strategy for training these

Are there alternatives?

Rethinking Tradition

Elephant management techniques in the United States used corporal

punishment and negative reinforcement to train elephants until about 30
years ago, when a new method began to emerge.

"We started changing our training methods [over the last few decades]
because we had the technology and the know-how," said Carol Buckley, co-
founder and executive director of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald,
Tennessee. "The new technique is called 'protected contact,' and it's used
in more than half of accredited American zoos."

The new training depends on rewards, not punishment.

"In a nutshell, when the behavior of the animal approximates the target of
behavior, you reward them," said Jeff Andrews, Animal Care Manager at the
San Diego Wild Animal Park. He is in charge of training the African and
Asian elephants at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Chailert hopes to change how the next generation of domestic elephants is

trained. With a tradition so deeply engrained, it won't be easy.

The crush thrives in isolated villages where narrow dirt roads are the only
connection to the outside world. Few outsiders venture into these remote
areas. Isolation is what allowed the crush to continue unchanged for
hundreds of years, and protects it still. Chailert is one of the only people
calling for change.

Welcome to the wonderful world of elephants!

Elephants have long held a fascination for human beings, not only for their
impressive size, but also for their remarkable intelligence, demonstrated by
their communication habits, mourning rituals and deep sense of family ties.
Elephants have even been used in ancient cultures as symbols for good
luck, prosperity and fertility.

There are two main elephant species still in existence today. These are the
African Elephant (further divided into the African Bush and African Forest
elephants) and the Asian Elephant. These differ somewhat in appearance.
The African Elephant is considerably bigger than its Asian counterpart, as
are its ears. The back is concave, while the Asian Elephant’s back is flat or

rounded. Similarly, the Asian Elephant’s stomach is saggy and rounded,
while the African’s usually extends straight across, with no curvature. Only
the Asian male is likely to have external tusks, while both males and
females of the African species sport these valuable features. The Asian
Elephants are hairier. The shape of their heads is another distinguishing
factor. Asian Elephants have a dent in the top of their heads when looking
at them head-on, resembling a heart shape, while African Elephants’ heads
are rounded with no indentation.

Elephants feed only on vegetation as they are herbivorous. They eat a large
variety of plants in astounding quantities, sometimes decimating the flora
of a confined region. When feeding, an elephant will consume the entire
plant, including its bark, roots and twigs. An elephant will consume up to
300 kilograms every day, spending more than half the day in pursuit of
vegetation. However, it does not digest much of this volume, excreting
approximately 60% of it in a relatively untouched form. This aids with seed
dispersal and the distribution of plant species, as these beasts travel
several kilometres during any given day.

Elephants maintain a strict social structure and adhere to formal life cycles.
Theirs is a matriarchal society, with the herds being made up of and lead by
females. The matriarch is usually the oldest and largest elephant, while her
immediate family herd comprises of daughters, nieces and sisters. Juvenile
males will begin spending less and less time with their mothers and aunts
as they enter their teenage years. Eventually, these ones will roam alone,
or in a bachelor pod of one or two other young males in search of mates
and food. Elephants are social creatures and, although they travel and live
with their family herd, their social circle extends to other families, herds
and clans. When a herd becomes too large to manage, some of the females
will branch off with the strongest of their group to form another herd of the
same family. These bonds are maintained despite physical distance. Within
the herd, the relationship amongst the females is remarkable as they assist
one another with new calves, warn each other of danger and mourn the
death of a herd member together.

Elephant cows reach sexual maturity and begin to breed at about 13 years
of age. Males are older and, if she chooses well, stronger and larger too.
The gestation period lasts for 22 months, after which a calf weighing
almost 120 kilograms is born. Like humans, elephants are not born with
natural survival instincts and need to be taught these by their mothers and
other female guardians. Their childhood therefore lasts longer as they
remain close to their herd, learning and being trained. The mother will not
give birth for at least another 2.5 years, giving her time to train her baby
sufficiently. Adolescence is the period between the time of the baby’s
weaning up to about 13 to 17 years of age, when sexual maturity is reached
(differing for young males and females). After this maturing, the elephant
is considered to be an adult, breeding until about 50 years of age. Most
elephants reach an impressive age of over 70.

Elephants are incredibly intelligent, a fact that continues to astound

researchers as they discover more and more about these animals.
Elephants can communicate with one another, using a variety of
techniques, over many kilometres of even dense bush. Their insight into
the family structure, tragedy and joy is remarkable, and they are frequently

found celebrating the birth of a new one or mourning the death of a loved
one in a way never before seen in animals.

Unfortunately, due to the value of their ivory tusks as well as the ever-
shrinking area being assigned to these roaming beasts, the elephant
populations around the world are severely threatened. Poaching has been
banned in many lands, but the demand for ivory products outweighs
legislation in many cases. The development of forests, bush and even arid
areas means that elephants have less space in which to roam and feed. The
food they have available does not have time to regenerate and they are
quickly running out of sustenance.

Elephants are unique, not only in their impressive dimensions, but also in
their insight into and understanding of emotions, their ability to
sympathise, empathise and celebrate. It is vital that this important species
be preserved and protected within their natural habitats so that they may
continue to add to the world’s natural wonders and humble us by their


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