Editor’s Note: This past summer, Anthony C. LoBaido spent nine weeks documenting and photographing the horrific plight of abused elephants in both Thailand and Sri Lanka.
“I can’t remember anything that happened before two weeks ago.” – Jason Bourne
“Lucky you.” – Marie Kruetz
– from “The Bourne Identity”
Lek Chailert and two of her fans at her Elephant Nature Park
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 leg was 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 tusk.
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 working.
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.
Elephants swimming in the Mae Tang River at Lek Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park
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.
The gentle giant Max was homeless for a time and has recovered from being run over by an 18-wheel truck
“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 for 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 young.”
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 a local university in Chiang Mai 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 $15),” 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 die”
Landmines are a major problems for elephants in both Burma and Thailand
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 Lek.
“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 the 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 sacrificed!’”
Her battles eventually took her into court.
The rescued elephants have become like family members to workers at the park
“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 attack of all. 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.”
“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 mangled leg makes 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 aunties.
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 reinforcement.
Along with two professional veterinarians (one of whom hails from India), teams of volunteers (mostly college students, including veterinary students) 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 YouTube.com. 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 YouTube.com 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 YouTube.com 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 levels.
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
Siam Commercial bank
Swift Code: SICO-TH-BK