Monday, January 17, 2011

The Beginning

The road has not been easy for Lek. She is the granddaughter of a shaman and her parents have rejected her since she has broken away from the traditions of her culture. In 1992 Lek began working tirelessly on the concept for her foundation starting with four elephants, Mae Perm as the first, 2nd ????, 3rd ??? and fourth is Jokia. In Thailand you must have the appropriate amount of land to keep specific numbers of elephants. Lek had only enough land for those four elephants. But little by little, people started hearing of her buying old, needy and abused elephants. Soon she had a total of nine, knowing that the Thai government could take the extra five away as well as shut down her newly started foundation. She was forced to keep the five extra in the jungle close to where her foundation property is. She smiles (the most beautiful heartwarming smile) as she says, 'I must have done good job hiding elephant; they never find them'. Officials suspected that she had more than four elephants and constantly interrogated her. At one point they asked why she has nine mahouts if she had only four elephants. She said the extras fill-in to allow for resting time for the mahouts. I admire her deeply for her determination to keep all her elephants safe and her mahouts as well.

Lek starts trying to ask the Thai government for larger portions of land in order to (legally) establish the foundation, but receives little support. Lek becomes friends with Antoinette from France who starts purchasing more needy elephants that Lek wants to rescue but does not have the money to do so. One day, a Texas man decides to gives her six million baht (Baht is Thai currency) in order to purchase all the land she needs. But the government still pushes back. They want to know who this Texan is and why he is giving her so much money. They state that if she is his girlfriend, then the money can go through -- they worry about money laundering and other guises for promoting illegal activity. She says no, she cannot say she is a girlfriend, he is married with children, and they continue to prod her in determining his interest. So finally she says, 'he is very dear to me. He is my angel.' Man, I start to cry with this one. She has finally won and they let her purchase the land. Her passion and dedication are unwavering and she says to all of the volunteers before her, 'You are my angels too.' Yup, more tears.

And as if that isn't enough, she says in her humblest voice and words, 'While you are here, learning about the elephants and helping all of us, I need your help too. You all have a lot of knowledge. I want you to tell me what you think we could be doing differently, how we can make it better. If you see any of our mahouts mistreating their elephant - throwing stones or hitting them with sticks - you must tell me or the volunteer coordinators. We are retraining these elephants with positive reinforcement. We do this with love and... food, all mahouts carry shoulder pouches filed with fruit. We do not punish bad behavior, but reward good behavior. We have proven that this works.'

Everything about Lek depicts progressiveness and in general, she is being received with full approval, including education, empowerment of women and care for the environment. She certainly has a gift and not only with elephants. The many dogs at the Park scramble and fall over each other to greet her and follow her whenever she appears. She has two loyal dogs, James Bond and ???, that never leave her side.