On a hot and humid tribe village in northern Thailand, five-year-old Sangduen Chailert, whose family called he Lek(“tiny”), was darting between bamboo and banana trees in her family’s lush garden. Suddenly she stopped and her deep brown eyes widened in wonder. Coming towards her, treading silenty on the damp earth, was an elephant. Lek was awed, but not afraid, as a man was astride the massive animal’s head. He looked down at the astonished child and said, “She is for you. Her name is Golden One.”
Lek walked up to the elephant and boldly put her arms around its trunk. The animal explored her slight figure with the tip of its dexterous trunk, sniffing and running it over her skin. It was a moment so entrancing that Lek would remember it all her life.
Lek’s grandfather, a healer and a shaman, had saved the life of a young boy. In gratitude the boy’s father, a Karen head tribesman, has walked three days with the elephant to present it as a gift to the family.
“Can we keep her?” Lek pleaded wih her grandfather. “I promise I will feed her and take care of her.” The grandfather, who called her little Monkey for her ability to climb trees, could not find it in himself to refuse her.
Each morning before she went to school, Lek would make sure there were bananas for Golden One, and she would rush home from school at lunchtime to feed her. The rapport between the elephant and the little girl was remarkable. Within weeks Little Monkey was even running Golden One’s trunk and perching on her head. To her fellow villagers the little girl rapport with the massive beast was amost magical.
As Lek grew older she developed the ability to coax Golden One into helping with small job, such as carrying rice or vegetables from field to their village.
In many part of Asia, elephant are subjected to what Thais call phajaan, a training ritual in which they are confined in cages, poked with wooden spikes and beaten to break their spirit. The mahouts who ride them prod them with a sarpened steel hook, whipping them if they became rebellious. But Lek won Golden One’s loyalty and abedience simply by taking to and rewarding her with bananas.
ALTHOUGH ONCE REVERED as religious and cultural icons, elephant seem to have lost their way in modern Thailand. A culture ago there were about 100, 000 elephants in the country; today they are maybe 5000 to 6000. the vast majority of Thailand’s 2700 domesticated elephant work in the tourism industry, though some are used for transport and farming. Thai law considers them as livestock rather than wild animals, so they are not covered under Thailand conservation rules and owners can pretty much do what they wish with them. Abuse often goes unpunished. Recently an elephant was burned to death by its drunker owner, but the man was never charged with a crime.
Lek was in her mid-teens when she first saw elephants being used for commercial logging. She had gone to the heavily logged Myammar-Thailand border to act as a translator for a group of missionaries. What she saw shocked her profoundly. Many of the working elephants had heavy wooden harness around their necks and were scarred where they had been rubbed raw by hauling chains. She saw them whipped, beaten and abused. There was nothing to do help the animals, but she would not forget them.
When Lek completed secondary school, there was no prospect of finding work in her village, so she resolved to continue her education. With Golden One in the care of relatives, she enrolled at university in the northern city of Chiang Mai and paid her way by selling luggage and kitchen utensils door to door.
After graduating, Lek opened a small travel agency in the city centre. She worked hard and the agency prospered, but she still remembered the elephants in the nothern forests.
Sometimes she encountered elephant abuse at her own doorstep. On some nights as many as 30 elephants. Often babies, were brought into Chiang Mai to entertain the tourists and attract their money. The sight of the great animal buffeted by traffic and taunted by drunken patrons of bars and nightclubs was more than Lek could bear. She witnessed one podded in the anus with a stick and another splashed with a container of scalding coffee.
One crisp November evening Lek noticed a man leading a frigthened seven-month-old baby elephant down a crowded street asking tourist to pay for a bunch of bananas. It was the last straw for Lek. She created a hand-held sign in English, German, Swedish and Thai that read.”Pease do not support the abuse of this baby elephant.” Then she planted herself in clear view near the elephant.
The owner was outraged. He smashed the sign with his fist and knocked Lek to the ground. She was taken to the hospital, badly concussed and with a fractured jaw. For the next month she could eat nothing but soup.
Lek was undeterred. She earned to use the media and conservation or organisations to draw attention to the plight of Thai elephants. When she helped expose to widespread use of the phajaan, she and her agency staffers received death threats from people concerned that her work would damage the country’s tourism industry. The travel agency’s window was smashed with a bick.
It would take more than a brick to stop Lek. She has been successful in drawing attention of elephant abuse. But she wanted to help the victims: the old, sick and maimed, most of whom were simply shot or abandoned.
What they needed, she decided, was a pace they could roam free, but safe and secure. But where? After an exhoustive search, she was given permission to use goverment forest area temporary.
To get the project started, she sold her house, her car and virtually everything she owned. She would use the pofits from her travel agency to pay upkeep. To raise more funds she hoped to attract visitors with a true interest in elephants to experience the animals in a natural setting. In 1996, with help from other elephant enthusiasts and wildlife charities, she opened the not-for-profit Elephant Nature Park. The first arriwal, Mae Perm, was a female, like Golden One. The wheel had come full circle.
The elephants found a permanent home in 2003, when a US wildlife charity donated a 16-hectare site located 56 kilometres north of Chiang Mai.
ON A STICKY, humid May afternoon I arrive at the Elephant Nature Park to be greeted by more than a score of trumpeting elephants of all sizes and ages. As the elephants’ mahouts and volunteers unload two pickup truck full of fresh bananas, watermelons, papayas and grapefruit, many of the park’s pampered quest tundle across the high napier grass meadows for first pickings of the fruits.
Lek, a slight and energetic women with dark, smiling eyes, leads me to an elephant caf who only reaches halfway up my chest. “This is Mae Toh Koh’s baby, Pupia,” she say proudly, referring to the eigth-month-old male elephant. The baby deftly snatches a bunch of small bananas from he grip. “No-one knew his mother was pregnant. So they worked her until she got too skinny.”
The calf was so underweight it could not stand up or walk when it wan born, and Toh Koh couldn’t produre enough milk for him. But now, under Lek’s care, they both florishing.
Lek has a poignant story each of the 28 rescued elephants in the park. Jokia, a three-tonne, 43-year-old former logging elephant, was blinded in one eye when her burmese mahout shot her with a slingshot to hurry her along. Later, the elephant’s owner deliberatey shot an arrow into her other eye after she has broken his arm by swatting him with her trunk.
“I found her chained, blind and being beaten whenever she bumped into tree,” says Lek. Today Jokia roams freely in the reserve and is watched over by her constant companion Mae Perm.
“look,” say Lek, as we watch Jokia and Mae Perm anble towards the rivesbank for a mud bath. Hovering over Jokia, nudging her with her trunk and cummunicating with subtle squeaks and louder squeals, the older elephant keeps her from bumbing into a fallen tree. Amazingly, Jokia deftly steps over it. Mae Perm rarely leaves her blind companion’s side. “Nothing will ever happen to Jokia as long as she live here. Mae Perm will see to that,” says Lek.
Some of the elephants were abandoned, and some bought (for as much as $10,000) to rescue them from abusive owners. Max, the biggest one at 3.6 metres high, worked as a “begging” elephant on the streets of Bangkok. On a dark night after she finished his rounds, an 18-wheeler knocked him down and dragged him along the highway for six metres. He could barely walk when he arrived and was little more than skin and bones.
Riding on an elephant’s back is a no-no fo visitors, and none of Lek’s charges perform for them. “This isn’t for circus,” she explains. But visitors are encouraged to feed, bathe and virtually live with them.
As I walk with Lek through the park, dodging bowling-ball size elephant dropings, we spot a groups of elephants making their way into the muddy Mae Taeng River that winds through the reserve. Lek smiles, hand me a pail and a scrub brush them a bath.”
The massive beasts wheeze, snort and swing their trunks from side to side. One swat from a 130-kilogram trunk could flatten me like a fly. “You’re not afraid are you?” asks Lek as we approach. “Of course not,” I lie.
Bellowing with delight, the massive animals wade into the swallows and playfully soak us with trunks full of warm river water. Nervousness fogetten, I scrub the bristly, greyish-brown forehead of seven-year-old Jungle Boy. He stares at me with deep black eye, encircled by thick, butterfly lashes. As I fill the pail to dump on his head, he blasts me with water. It’s ike being sprayed with a fire hose.
With the growing success of the conservation programme – she has saved nearly 30 elephants and more than 400 people visited the park last year – Lek’s fame has spread. Support for her work has enabled her to expand a fee mobile medical clinic for elephants and villagers throughout the region. Her elephant conservation work has won her two honorary PhDs, and her raputation is spreading abroad.
“Lek enables these elephants to live out their lives with dignity and grace,” says Bert von Roemer, president of the US-based Serengeti Foundation. “She is the Asian elephant’s best friend.”
As I stand waist deep in the Mae Taeng River, soaked in water, covered with elephant snot and surrounded by elephants as happy as toddlers in a bathtub, it’s impossible not to agree.