Chiang Mai Province, Thailand — Sangduen Lek Chailert rescues abused and abandoned elephants, with physical and emotional scars from landmines, logging chains and beatings.
In a task as gargantuan as the animals she’s rescuing, Chailert has created a sanctuary north of Chiang Mai in Thailand where 77 elephants are cared for in a growing trend that is seeing elephant rescues replacing elephants rides as a tourist draw.
For Chailert, eco activism is a family affair. Married to Canadian Darrick Thomson — a past member of Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd crew — it’s no surprise that the couple have a menagerie at home that includes dozens of hurt or sick animals.
“We also rescue cats and dogs,” said Chailert.
That’s an understatement. There are hundreds of cats and dogs sharing the Elephant Nature Park’s 300 acres. But it’s the elephants that draw the tourists.
Chailert is the granddaughter of a shaman, one of seven children raised in a tribal village in northern Thailand. Growing up Chailert saw her grandfather take in people who were sick, saw her mother care for them and watched the drain on her family’s resources. She asked her grandfather: “Why do you do this for nothing?”
His answer: “It makes me happy,” Chailert recalls. The people he helped showed their gratitude in non-monetary ways.
“When my grandfather wanted to harvest a crop, people would come from everywhere to help him and when he wanted to build a new house, people came to help.”
Her grandfather’s lesson would stay with Chailert who found her first elephant in need while still a teen and working as a translator for a missionary.
“I saw the bull elephant, he was pulling logs and they kept striking him on his head, there was blood and he was screaming,” she said. When she got home, she couldn’t forget that the anguished bellowing.
“That big voice was never out of my head, I wanted to go back to help him,” she said. “I started to go looking for money to buy medicine for him.”
She tried to get a job waitressing but at her age, no restaurant would hire her. The operator of a bowling alley relented and gave her a job cleaning dishes. Her pay was about the equivalent of $1.50 for six hours of work, but it was enough to save for medicine.
In 1990 she started a clinic called Jumbo Express to help sick and ailing elephants. In 1992, Chailert rescued her first elephant, a female named Mae Perm working in an illegal logging camp.
A $6 million US donation from a wealthy Texan funded the purchase of the first 50 acres of the sanctuary.
The park is a departure from elephant tourist attractions where the animals are used as entertainment with operators selling packages promising rides. Or where trained elephants paint or play soccer and do other tricks.
What is not on display at these tourist draws is the tortuous training that leaves deep scars, both in the minds and bodies of these intelligent giants, Chalet says.
Known as “the crush,” the training begins after a baby elephant is taken by poachers who often shoot the mother to get their prize. The captured baby is chained, virtually immobilized – even its trunk is tied – and beaten and stabbed with nails on sticks on its sensitive ears and feet in an effort to make it do his mahout’s (handler’s) bidding.
A report by World Animal Protection found that three out of four of the 2,923 elephants surveyed in tourist venues across Asia live in “poor and unacceptable conditions.”
“When not giving rides or performing, the elephants were typically chained day and night, most of the time to chains less than three metres long. They were also fed poor diets, given limited veterinary care and were frequently kept on concrete floors in stressful locations near loud music, roads or visitor groups. These conditions took no account of the elephants’ intelligence, behaviours and needs. The scale of suffering at these venues is severe,” the report reads.
For all their size, elephants don’t have backs built for carrying the heavy weight of a tourists in a seat; it can leave them with long term damage to their spines. The elephants are kept in line by the threat of a sharp stab from a nail hidden in the handler’s fist.
At the sanctuary there are no shows, but instead the opportunity to walk among the elephants and watch them as they idle away their days in family groups, wandering the the acreage, taking a dip in the river, rolling in mud and most notably eating the tons of food that is trucked out to them.
It is only through fees and donations that the sanctuary can continue. Each elephant eats 10 per cent of its weight each day and medical care is a constant need.
A visitor’s first introduction to the elephants is feeding them fruit from a platform in the main open air building. There’s a red line on the platform and the guide warns — as he hands out the bananas and watermelon — not to get between an elephant and its food.
It’s a fine line between letting the elephants live comfortably and giving tourists a glimpse of their life. Each elephant has a mahout. When a new elephant arrives at the sanctuary, two or three mahouts will care for it; the one the elephant answers to becomes her mahout.
Out in the fields, some of the elderly inhabitants walk up to let us touch their skin – a bit like petting very hard and wrinkled rubber. Elephants don’t like being approached from the front because the can’t see very well. You must come at them from the side where their peripheral vision stops you from startling them. That trunk that sways so gracefully can smack with the power of a crowbar.
If you are lucky you get to rinse them when they head down to the the river
If you stay overnight, you sleep mere metres from the elephants. I walked onto the balcony of our spacious room with its mosquitos nets over the beds, and looked at the most elderly and infirm of the elephants in their night stalls where they are kept when the mahouts go home.
All was peaceful for the pachyderms.
If yo go
The Elephant Nature Park is 60 km from Chiang Mai, pick up by minivan from your Chiang Mai hotel or guesthouse is at 7:30 in the morning.
Bring light clothing, it’s very hot but you may want to wear gore tex hikers for trekking around fields that can be wet. Flat sandals that can be washed are useful; next time I’d take waterproof hikers and sturdy sandals.
Bring mosquito repellent, sunscreen, a swimsuit and change of clothes if you plan to help wash elephants.
Visits start at 2,500 Thai Baht for a short park visit, or close to $100 Cdn for adults; half that for children
Overnight visits, two days and one night are about $255 Cdn for adults.
Weeklong volunteer visitors pay about $600 Cdn and spend seven days helping out at the park and learning about the elephants.
Find the Elephant Nature Park online at https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/