Nat takes a break to introduce to Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert, the founder of the Sanctuary. She goes by the name 'Lek' which means 'small', a perfect name for her 4' 9" tiny frame. She begins to talk with us about how she founded the park, the purpose behind it and what is happening now. This means so much to me that Lek makes the time to meet us and tell us her story. I will recount some of this later, but for now I will leave you with this:
For centuries people have been attracted to the elephant. Fascinated by its size, strength, intelligence and sheer majesty, the elephant holds a special place in our imaginations. Elephants have always played an honored role in Asian society as symbols of national pride, religious reverence and tradition, as well as serving as beast of burden with seemingly endless reserves of strength.
The reality is that humans have destroyed most of this beloved animal's habitat, killed them for their tusks, worked them literally to death and forced them to perform as our entertainment (circuses, street begging, etc...) It is estimated that today there are probably fewer than 30,000 elephants remaining in Asia - one tenth the number in Africa. Approximately half of these elephants are living in captivity. Our determination to domesticate one of the worlds largest and most intelligent animals has resulted in a centuries old tradition known as phajaan, During this ritual, young elephants are dragged from their mother's side, placed in a cage (nicknamed 'the crush') and brutalized until their will and spirit are broken (we are shown a video of this process, disturbingly poignant), accepting man as their master and a life based on fear.
Elephants working in logging are often underfed, overworked and have been known to be given amphetamines to push them beyond normal levels of endurance, sometimes resulting in horrific accidents. This is the case of Lilly, who was fed amphetamines in order to work continuously throughout the day and night. She was rescued by Lek, dangerously thin and a drug addict. It took months to detox her.
Many of the elephants are forced to walk crowded city streets to earn their keep by begging for overpriced bananas paid for by onlookers. The baby elephants suffer the brunt of this as they are preyed upon for their cuteness. This is a risky occupation where elephants are sometimes hit by cars, become sick from drinking polluted waters and inhaling exhaust fumes. They are scared and overstimulated from the city vibrations they sense in their very sensitive feet and well as damage to their ears and eyes. In seemingly innocuous elephant camps set up for the enjoyment of tourists, there is considerable suffering behind the scenes. Elephants are frequently beat by an ankush ( a curved metal hook used to train and discipline elephants), forced to carry tourists (called trekking - trek camps are set up for this) while heavily pregnant and trained to do demeaning tricks - painting, soccer and basketball). The rocking motion is seen constantly emphasizing the extreme stress of their daily life.
Lek decided to create this facility in order to rescue particularly abused, aged and injured elephants. These elephants are being given the opportunity to reawaken their spirit and simply enjoy life. Most show their playful nature of elephants emerging in the safe environment of the park where their individual personalities and quirks find expression. Some still have mental pain and cannot be approached except by their mahout (elephant handler) as they slowly work through their mental pain and scars. Some of the younger elephants (two of which are babies born from from two unknowingly pregnant rescued females) have never known the brutality of phajaan are being taught with love and food rewards (positive reinforcement -- this works on humans as well...) instead of pain. This pioneering work is being carried out by Lek and her mahouts revealing that phajaan is an unnecessary evil and that a more enlightened approach to training elephants (as in Asia, elephants are used to help work) is possible. The Elephant Nature Park is a true success story and more and more people are choosing to observe elephants interacting in a relatively natural environment rather than riding them or watching them perform circus tricks.
If attitudes change, then there may be hope for the future of these Asian elephants, otherwise it seems likely that their natural habitat will continue to disappear in man's destructive wake and those in captivity will remain sacred but exploited. We need to bring awareness to this perilous situation and insight to the nature of this extraordinary yet endangered species. Just like us, elephants deserve the right to freedom and happiness.
From Lek herself in an interview I found of her being asked: "Why elephants - what's so special about them?" Her answer: "My grandfather had an elephant to help him with farming chores. Thongkhum (golden one) was his name and he was like a member of the family. I've loved them ever since. Their keen family bonds, individual personalities and kindness are only part of the reason. It takes a stone heart for those lucky enough to work with elephants not to love them. I'd like you to come to see my elephants. You'll see for yourself then."
Sometimes great things come in small packages. My angel, my hero:
As Lek says, my heart smiles.