She Gives Elephants a Taste of Freedom

AsiaOneTravel - Jan. 16, 2009
By Nirmal Ghosh, Thailand Correspondent

SITTING in the shade of a tree by the river in the verdant Mae Taeng Valley north of Chiang Mai, Ms Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert, surrounded by her elephants and gambolling dogs, shares some horror stories.

Take for instance the female elephant Mae Mai, which drags its hind leg in the distance. Its leg was broken in a logging accident. But its owner, greedy for money, decided he wanted a calf from it. So when Mae Mai came into oestrus (breeding readiness), he shackled the female elephant to a tree and let a bull elephant have its way repeatedly, injuring Mae Mai's back.

The state of elephants is a sad reflection of the Thai symbol today. Often, private owners - mostly in tourism and trekking companies that use the elephants in 'shows' or make them work - want to get rid of an elephant because it is too old or sick and becomes too expensive to maintain.

Sometimes, the owner wants to get rid of the elephant because he is afraid he will be killed by the animal - a real possibility when elephants are so brutally treated.

This is where Ms Chailert steps in.

Single-handedly, the 47-year-old has saved the lives of scores of elephants, raised many from when they were newborn calves, and turned this rambling 60ha site into Thailand's best-known sanctuary for injured and abused elephants. The Elephant Nature Park was possible, thanks to funds from a benefactor from Texas.

Ms Chailert's affiliation with elephants started when her father, a Khmo hill tribe medicine man, received one as a gift from a local chief of the Karen tribe whom he had cured.

Ms Chailert - who was already fond of animals and given to rescuing and treating sick and injured wildlife brought back from the jungle by her father - had her epiphany when she met the elephant, which was named Thongkhum (Golden One).

Photo right: Ms Sangduen Chailert getting a 'hug' from one of the elephants she has raised from young.

'When Thongkhum arrived, I ran and got a banana and offered it. Our very first touch was beautiful,' says Ms Chailert, who was nicknamed 'little doctor'.

'I was 16,' recalls Ms Chailert, as her eyes look into the distant hills. 'I was already helping missionaries talk to the Karen, and I had seen logging elephants, many of them suffering, many of them dying. It was a very different picture from our happy elephant.'

Ms Chailert fishes out a set of pictures from an envelope, showing another elephant she is trying to acquire from a private owner.

The elephant has suppurating sores all over its body, from injuries inflicted by its handlers.

Ms Chailert's nickname may mean 'small' in Thai, but the heart of the diminutive woman is legendary, and her iron will formidable. In setting up the sanctuary, she had to overcome opposition from the locals who claimed they were worried that the elephants would damage their crops.

But, as Ms Chailert found out later, they were really more worried that she would find out they were using dynamite and cyanide to kill fish in the river.

The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary with a difference. The elephants there do not dance, paint or play music to entertain visitors. Guests do not even get to ride on them. 'I don't want to train the elephants at all, to be honest,' she says.

'Many of the rescued elephants have not only physical problems, but also psychological problems from the abuse they had suffered. Most have spent their entire lives in chains, decade after decade, never having experienced freedom. Sometimes when we take the chains off, the elephant does not know what to do.'

Ms Chailert has personally recorded five cases of female elephants killing their own calves - highly unusual behaviour for a species that is as caring as any human towards family members.

Following up on each case, she found that in all of them, the female had been chained to a tree or post by its owner who had then allowed a bull elephant to inseminate it in order to gain a calf to work or sell.

'We are like a mental hospital here; you have to be patient,' explains Ms Chailert to visitors who wonder why, unlike in other places, the elephants are not more closely trained or made to work.

Running the Elephant Nature Park costs her around 1 million to 1.5 million baht (S$64,000) a month. She employs Burmese mahouts (elephant drivers) - whose traditional skill, handed down from generation to generation, is all but gone.

She gets by with donations that pour in from all over the world. Volunteers also come and live in the park to help out with daily chores. Some even end up staying there for years.

Ms Chailert has received several accolades, including the Earth Day Award in 2006, and she was named one of 'Asia's Heroes' by Time magazine in 2005. But she is not stopping there. She is planning to expand the park and is negotiating for two more plots of land nearby, both bigger than the current one at Mae Taeng.

As we talk, a young male elephant ambles up. Ms Chailert has raised it since the time it reached only her waist in height, but now it towers over her. She feeds it slices of bread and it lovingly wraps its trunk around her head and neck until she squeals.

The rolling green hills around us, the fresh river water streaming by, the minimal handling and, above all, perhaps the love and care shown by Ms Chailert and others at the park, are therapy for these elephants.

Sitting on the grass again, Ms Chailert says: 'Eventually, I would like them all to be free, never to be touched by humans.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 14, 2009.

 Original Article