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Mother Teresa of the Elephants

Hope in Thailand

Mother Teresa of the Elephants

© Ron Levy  2015

Lek Chaillert-owner-young-rehabilitated elephant-Elephant Nature Park-Chiang Mai-Thailand-Ron Levy Photography
Lek chaillert and  her pride and joy “Hope”

A woman needs help in Thailand.

She has been fighting for freedom. Her windows have been shattered, and her life has been threatened.

She is not fighting for her own freedom though. Nor for the freedom of her people. She is fighting for freedom from pain inflicted on others who cannot speak the local language.

Sangduen Chailert comes from the hills of neighboring Myanmar (previously Burma), and she has spent many months and years studying the customs of the Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian and Thai people. Her nickname is “Lek” (pronounced “Lake”) and it means “small” in Thai. She is thin and small in stature like many Thai people compared to Westerners, but her heart is huge.

When Lek was 5 years old, her uncle gave her a present that changed her life forever. It was an elephant, and the benefits soon multiplied far beyond companionship.

She learned how to read and understand the intricate and subliminal ways elephants communicate. She learned how much they wish to please their owners, much like dogs. And she learned that the elephants most people see in tourist shows and publications only show the end result of tortuous practices designed to train these gentle souls to perform, carry people, and basically do whatever they are told.

And she developed a compassion toward animals in general that often only resides only in the hearts of people whose stomachs are full. When the struggle for daily bread consumes the lives of indigenous cultures, there is often little room, nor desire, to acknowledge the depth of feeling some animals may have, especially those used for utility.

It is called pajaan, and it is designed to crush the elephant spirit into submission. It can involve anything from pounding their heads, ears and toes with nails on poles, to pulling the elephant in 4 directions at once to break their desire to resist. Lek says that elephants will respond to positive reinforcement without any need for pain or negative methods. And she can prove it.

Elephants in Mae Taeng river, Elephant NP, Thailand

Lek and 2 grateful rehabs, Elephant NP, Thailand

For almost 20 years now, she has operated the Elephant Nature Center, about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It’s mission is to rescue elephants and become “a place where elephants no longer work for humans”.

Started in 1995 with only a few acres and no budget, it mushroomed overnight in 2003 to several hundred acres from the personal donation of one Austin, Texas millionaire. After visiting the park for 3 days, Bert Vroomeyer telephoned Lek to let her know that he had transferred almost $500,000 to the park account. Lek was stunned, and even today, she cannot stop the tears of joy when she relates this story.

This allowed her to buy more land, and rescue 5 more elephants from tortuous practices of pajaan. One of those was Jokia, an elephant previously used by loggers, beforelogging was banned in 1989. Jokia’s story is unfortunately a common one. Pregnant while she was hauling logs, she gave birth. The baby rolled down the hill still in its birth sack, and died. Jokia was not allowed to go after her or see her again.

She refused to work anymore. Her handlers poked, prodded and tried to knife her into submission. They poked her eyes and shot rocks into them with slingshots until she was blind. Lek rescued her in1999 and nurtured her back to the trust that is innate in these animals. Jokia is enjoying a happy, communal life at the Center, and is a gentle pachyderm happy to be fed, and hugged, by visitors.

Jokia was tortured in logging camps and is blind


Max was hit by a truck. He died about a year after this photo was taken.

Max was a huge male elephant previously used for shows and utility in the streets around Bangkok. Max was hit by an 18-wheel truck. His back was permanently broken, and he was given up for dead. Lek heard about him and brought him to the Center, with the only hope of making his last few days of life less painful. Six years later, Max is still there, walking around with a painful-to-watch limp, but a spark in his eye.

But perhaps the most touching of Lek’s accomplishments concerns a small baby elephant she rescued as a newly orphaned, but very sick 1 ½ year old baby. Her owner neither had the time, money or knowledge to care for her.

After getting the animal to the center in 2002, she endured long days and nights constantly being, sleeping and playing with him, slowly gaining his trust, and nurturing him back to health. She was exhausted for weeks, but slowly the rewards came. She named him “Hope”, not only for the potential he represented for all elephants, but for all Thai people, whom she hopes will eventually translate the compassion they feel for their own people to those of the elephants that serve them so well.

Hope is a rambunctious teenager now, running around the center and always challenging other elephants in play. He is trusting of humans, but still unsure of his own power. And he has been adopted” by blind Jokia; they have become best friends.

Each of her 35 multi-ton elephants eats 300 pounds of food per day. This is more than the center has room for, but she cannot refuse a deeply injured animal. This includes the 30+ dogs who claim snoozing rights anywhere they want. If you do the math, then add the logistics of bringing that many bananas, pumpkins and grass to the center every day, the cost comes to more than $250,000 per year just for food. If you convert to Thai Baht currency, the number seems to approach infinity.

Each of the 30+ elephants eats 300 pounds of food per day

Yet it all pales in comparison to the heartfelt interactions between animals and people that go on every day here. Feeding time is an interspecies howling circus of joy and gratitude. Volunteers come for weeks at a time to help and bond with the animals, often returning years later for another fix. The volunteers, donations and visitor fees, are the only forms of support that keep the center afloat and the elephants alive.

The gains that have been made to date have not been without cost. There are many who do not want their income and way of life threatened, especially on the new ethic grounds which she is paving. When Lek has tried to publicize pajaan activities – through media outlets in other countries as well as her own– she has been met with death threats by gunpoint, robberies, and even the killing of a baby elephant. A day does not go by where she does not worry about physical danger to herself and all that she cares for.

Political tensions in Thailand date back to World War II, when the country was divided in its political allegiances. Japanese forces supported northern Thailand and British ally forces supported southern Thailand. After the war, the economic benefits from northern logging operations benefitted Japanese operations more than the British or Thai interests in the south.

These tensions continued for a long time until the devastating monsoons of 1988. Many people were killed, as the previously-logged hills had no trees to defend themselves. Thousands of tons of mud and soil were washed away, effectively washing away much of logging companies’ hopes for continued profit. Political tensions were thus relieved by the weather, as the Thai government then banned all logging operations in 1989.

As a result, many elephants like Jokia were left unemployed, only to be transferred to training camps for employment in the tourist trade. They were “reprogrammed” to obey commands to beg, accept human riders other than their owners or trainers (“mahouts”), perform tricks, play soccer, paint, and do anything else the owners wanted.

While this in itself may not be bad, it was the techniques and barbaric tortures that these animals were subjected to that motivated Lek to establish the Center. Her hard work now has inertia, but it is still microscopic in the macro-economics of Thai politics. Taking back stage to the larger problems of habitat destruction, international political and industry “affiliations”, and Thailand’s lack of anti-cruelty laws, Lek seems to have insurmountable odds against her.

Visitors get to bathe and care for rehab elephants

Yet she has shown the power of one woman. She has exceeded her dreams many times over, and still has more to fulfill. Currently, she is trying to secure more land as a permanent home for her elephants once they have been treated and re-trained. “They need a place to roam free and protected, they way it used to be,” she says.

Her charisma extends to all the people and animals who know her. She is soft spoken but well versed in the nuances of Thai politics and society, as well as all aspects of animal care. Though humble about herself, she is open about the ongoing need for financial and political help. Her empathy is boundless, even if her funds aren’t.

In fact, nothing is secure in Lek’s future, except for her heartfelt conviction that no matter what happens, she will continue to keep these gentle giants free and happy for the rest of her, and their, lives.

Text & Photos © Ron Levy 2015. All rights reserved.
Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.

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