Saengduean “Lek” Chailert was born and raised in Thailand, a place where Asian elephants are commonplace.
After her secondary education, Lek started working in tourism, where she saw elephants endure horrific treatment—in circuses, riding parks, and other attractions most visitors to the country think of as benign.
It was then that Lek started rescuing elephants, many of them injured and elderly, and relocating them to what is now Elephant Nature Park. The sanctuary is now home to more than 100 Asian elephants rescued from captivity, and Lek has been recognized all over the world for her tireless work.
Lek talks to Jay about the rampant exploitation of these animals within Thailand’s tourism industry, and how social media has helped in bringing animal abuse to the world’s attention.
Listen to the latest episode of All About Change as Lek discusses the exploitation of elephants in Thailand’s tourism industry and how social media has helped bring the world’s attention to animal abuse.
To learn more about the Save Elephant Foundation, click here.
In the tribe where I come from, I’m the hill tribe and I stay in a deep jungle. The area that we have, it bring many people, who bring the elephant into our area, and they cut the big giant tree to be the logging.
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This week on All About Change, we welcome Lek Chailert, an animal rights activist who’s often been described as an elephant whisperer. For decades, Lek has worked with governments and local communities in her native Thailand, serving as a voice for this majestic animal. Throughout her life, Lek has seen these animals endure cruel, and often abusive conditions.
I heard all the time the screaming of elephant in the jungle.
Her experiences shaped her love and compassion for elephants. I spoke with Lek about her work, and the challenges she’s faced along the way. Just a note, some of today’s episode contains graphic descriptions of animal cruelty.
Okay, so Lek Chailert, thank you so much for being my guest on All About Change. I’m really excited to speak to you, and thank you for being with us today.
Thank you Jay to have me here in your program.
And I understand right now you are on the border of Thailand and Cambodia.
I am here in the eastern of Thailand, as along Thailand and Cambodia border, where it’s elephant and human conflict. We have, in this area, they have about 600 elephant in this area, every year the number of the elephant get killed in this area. So that’s why one of the reason I am here today.
And how many wild elephants are there in Southeast Asia?
For Southeast Asia altogether? I mean all the Asian elephant, wild elephant, is about 50,000 left, and it’s really risky, and is critical on that, because of the Asian elephant population is, they turn decline every year because of the problem of the land, the lost habitat, the people take the land from them, especially for their homeland. And the area that is, I am here today, I do right now, now because I can’t do alone, I have to do that is to come to work with the local quality, local government, speak for the people and bring the government from the center of Thailand, to come and understand about what the people need here. Today is the people take the land from the elephant, and they start to use the land for the plantation. So what we do right now, that we have to bring the job to them, and we have to start to bring more income to them.
You know, Lek, I’ve heard you talk about the elephant as being the most majestic creature on the face of the planet. Can you talk about your first experience with an elephant, and how you got into the job of being an activist in saving elephants?
Okay. Myself, in the tribe where I come from, I’m the hill tribe and I stay in a deep jungle, and where the area that is our village stay, we have many a big giant tree. So, when we stay among the jungle and the area that we have, they cut the big giant tree to be the logging. And that time, I heard all the time, the screaming of elephant in the jungle during the time, they work and we heard about the jet, we heard the angry of the man that is yelling, at show, but in the same time we heard an offense screaming, we are not allowed to go to the jungle to see what happening over there. I keep up my father, my grandfather, what going on in there, why elephant seem very angry. And then my grandfather just said, the people, false elephant took the pull the log, pull the timber.
That is, I can’t imagine anything, until when I become a teammate I work as a volunteer. I followed the missionary into the jungle, and to visit the tribe, and also to help them to translate from the tribal language to the English.
So when I was there, and I heard the screening exactly the same, that is the elephant work in the village, in our village. So I asked the headman if they could show me where is the noise come from. So the headman of the village take me up to the creek, and then suddenly I see the bull elephant, all really not looking well, all skinny. The size of the timber is almost the same size of elephant. So he moved me up to stay in front of elephant which is I can see that, every time when elephant start to pull the log, I heard the screaming, and he try very hard to try to pull that giant log to the steep hill, every five inch of to move the log, he get a painful because [inaudible 00:06:16] who control him, one on the top of that elephant, jab the knife into his head, the be high in the leg, the one of keeper start to jab with the spike in the back leg, and one in front sling shot his face over and over.
So this elephant get very angry, and then he tried very hard to get out of the pain, but the more he pulled, the more they force him and abuse him. And when he stop he look at me and then he start to pull on his power again, and screaming. And when I saw the man jab the knife on his head, I screaming myself, because I wanted to stop it. During that time, I don’t know between me or the elephant was screaming the most because I’m really upset to see that and I keep screaming and then they remove me out from there.
I remember that that eyes, that eyes and that noise crushed my heart. I can see the eyes of angry, the eye of painful, hopeless, confused, and everything come from that eye. I came home with that noise and that eye follow me like a shadow.
So I decided to work and bring the money to buy the medicine, and I went back to the area again. I brought a full rucksack. The medicine is not enough for the boy. I can see that his eye, his loud and everything. Then the keeper said more elephant sick in that village, more sick to the other village. They gave me a location, and I walk deeper in the jungle. The more I walk into the jungle, the more I see the suffer. I witnessed all elephant, sick elephant and they told me when the elephant falling down die.
So, Lek, that’s a very traumatic story about your introduction to the suffering of elephants. I understand that your family was also involved with working with elephants. So when you took the position of wanting to save elephants, what did that do to your relationship with your family?
When I leave for my home, I’m the first woman in the village who come to a university, because most the tribe and they don’t allow the woman [inaudible 00:08:47] to go to school. So my mother asked me to be like a government official, because the people in the village, they dream for the family to be the government official, because we get a lot of thing also like [inaudible 00:09:03] from the government.
So I promised my mother, that is when I graduate I will work as maybe to be nurse, to be doctor. But I see in my mind, when I see the elephant, and I think that this is I want to work for them, and I want to voice for them, and I can’t turn my back to them. My sister, brother they do the elephant, because I try already. I want them to change, they not agree, and yes, they don’t want to talk to me.
So I’m so sorry for the loss of the connection that you have had with your family, but you’ve saved hundreds and hundreds of elephants in your country. Can you tell us, in addition to logging, how else are elephants abused in your country?
Many people come to Thailand and they want to have experience to ride elephant, they want to buy the elephant painting, they want to see elephant circus, because it’s in many country, you may be can’t find that, but you still can see many in Thailand.
But what is behind the scene? First of all they will take, they would separate the baby from the mother. This is the worst part. Elephants, they socialize like a family, they stay as the herd. So when they take the mother elephant separate from the baby, the baby fear and confused. Many of them during the training, they died during the training class, but no one speak about this. But before you order to train elephant to use for the logging, it might take a few command to lift the leg, to stop, to move forward. It’s just maximum [inaudible 00:11:02] command.
But to train elephant to work, to serve it people, then they nonstop train. After they train the baby elephant, they make sure that the elephant afraid, and obey to people, because they have to come to serve it to people, to do whatever people want. And it’s a lot of thing that people have no idea about that. And as well, in the tourist industry, they bring so many baby elephant to come to serving people. Many people come southeast Asia, and sometime the people will tell to the tourists these elephant are the orphanage. But the fact is, they’re not orphanage. And some tourists not even get no idea and not even question, but they enjoy to like to take a picture or selfie with the baby elephant. And when they start to show in social media, more and more people want to do the same.
What type of torture does an elephant have to endure in order to get to that condition?
So it’s not easy at all. And also, we talk about [inaudible 00:12:14]. When they start to train elephant, they have to not just leave [inaudible 00:12:19], they use knife, they use nail, they use spike, they use rope, they use plenty. For the first seven day they tie elephant everywhere, then the more the fight, the more the leg is cut deeper by the rope, and then the baby elephant have to learn. If they’re screaming for the mother they will poke with some spike, and also they will check the baby with the nail nail [inaudible 00:12:47] they make very sharp.
This is very sad, and I witnessed so many times, and I have been below some area when they trade they don’t care because they outlaw, they allow me to see that, and we can’t do anything because we have no law. So I only take a picture, that I want the world to see about that. But when I start to show that, I can get punishment by the authority and also I get plenty, I get enough bully by my [inaudible 00:13:21] as well when I start to speak out.
So what have you endured, in terms of, because you’re challenging a large part of the economy, and a large part of society in Thailand, that’s using the elephant for different purposes. Have you been arrested, have you been threatened? As an advocate who’s standing up for the survival of the Asian elephant, what have you personally endured?
One time I went through a transport [inaudible 00:13:57] for elephant, and I get chased by at the motorcycle, and first we drive fast as we can, because we didn’t know, and suddenly that man with on the motorcycle used a gun, and knock our window and tell us to stop.
So when we stop, and we asked who are you? They said the police, but they have no uniform. So we can’t stop the car in the middle of jungle. So we decided to drop the car, and let them chase us until to the busy street. So after that, they stopped us and we allowed them to talk to us, and I asked what’s going on? And then he said we want to search your car. And of course they said get out the car, and then the police call or my driver out, and he said come here, I want to charge you for driving with no seat belt.
And we said we put a seatbelt, and the police said we didn’t see you put a seatbelt now, isn’t it? And then they start to give us the bill. And then the police talk to my driver, tell to your boss, don’t try to be a big mouth to speak bad about country. And I know already, they get the order and I get a lot of trouble for life, for the animal right in the country, where we have very weak of animal law, and not have animal right issues. Sometime I feel that I speak, my language is like a alien language, and it’s difficult to stand up and challenge. But I won’t give up on that. I will speak until that is my voice can hear, on behalf of the animals here.
So what do you think the role of circuses, elephants and circuses, a lot of people attend circuses around the world, and they see elephants, and they’re performing tricks. What is your attitude towards the use of elephants in circuses, and what should people be doing in order to protect elephants?
In my opinion, the circus in Century 21, they shouldn’t have anymore. This is very old fashioned. Our children shouldn’t see this anymore, and the circus is always behind the scene, they torture elephant. No not animal will have walk out of the case and suddenly stand up at dancing and performing. And especially you can see that stand up and let the people stand on the trunk, stand up with the leg, and this is unnatural for them.
One elephant named Lucky, she was the elephant who did a circus since she one years old until she’s 20 years old, both eyes blind from the light, and now she stay with us, and they rescue her when she was 20. Now she 35, like 15 years already, she stay in the dark, and people doesn’t know, when the people come and see they may be enjoy but who knows? And people think that is normal. It’s not normal at all. Elephant shouldn’t be show anything like that. They should let them free, let them enjoy with the river, let them enjoy with the mud bath, and elephant, they are the social life. They stay as the herd, let them be herd, bring them to the family, they’re not belonging to us.
You are often called an elephant whisperer, and you can see the qualities of elephants. People often look at animals and they don’t think that they have feelings and emotions. Can you tell me what it’s like for you to connect with an elephant?
Okay, Jay, anyone can be the elephant whisperer. The only thing that is in way you see elephant as alive. You see elephant as the people, everyone can understand them, if they stand on the rock and under their feet have the rock stuck in the feet. I know right away, because they walk to me and they start to use the trunk to point, and then I will tell them, okay, lift your feet. Then I see over there, and then to treat them, sometime I talk to the vet who stay at our work project, when they want to draw the blood, and elephant doesn’t want them, elephant afraid of the vet.
I said to them, look, start to come and speak very nice to them. They’re like the children, so calm them down and let them know this is will go to help. And somehow when the vet start to draw the blood, I have to be between their leg, to comfort them like my baby, and to let them know that everything will be okay. Between human and animals, we have only one wall. If we broken that wall, then we will understand each other. It don’t need a special skill, but need heart to be that.
And my husband, after he finished the work for me, from Canada and then he came stay with me now, and he spend a lot of time with elephant and now elephant totally in love with him, and they trust him, and they love him. So I think anyone can communicate with elephant, if we really open our heart.
So you started the Elephant Nature Park. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is, and how many elephants you’ve been able to bring to the park to date?
The elephants park start from after I credited, and then I start to have a job, and save money. And then I know from the first impression I met that bull elephant, I not give up. So I saved the money, I went back, I want to rescue him, and at that time I didn’t have land, I just want to bring him to stay behind of my backyard of the house.
So I went back to the village, and then I find that I went there too late, because the bull pass away. So I not come back with empty hand. So I start to walk more and to search for the other elephant, and I found one old elephant and they told me she is 90 years old. At that time I believed them, because she’s so skinny and look old, so I brought her, and then I take her to stay with my friend [inaudible 00:21:05], and which is I asked him if he could start elephant sanctuary.
So this man, he invest the money to put elephant sanctuary, but when he start the project, and he can see that his sanctuary next to the elephant riding camp, and he said he want to cross the sanctuary, and he want to open elephant riding, and he want to make money too.
So I beg him, I said, well what do you really want? He said he want to start elephant show in circus. I said, no, no, no don’t do it. So I asked the man, please allow me, I want to try. I said okay, we can make the show, but not really a full show. So I start to take Elephant to walk, and start to explain to people about Elephant, by talk about how happy of elephant, where this elephant come from, a biography of the elephant, and start to tell the story. But for his competition, for his business, and other camp, they start to get conflict.
The man get gunshot after that, and after he get that injury, stay in the hospital and his family said, no, they don’t want to do anymore. So I have to find the land to stay. But the land that we stay, I stay in before, I lease the land from the global bank. But the land we have right now, we have donate money from [inaudible 00:22:35] from Austin, Texas who donate the money to me to buy land. And we start Elephant Nature Park with my elephant from start, in 2003, at we start to the place we are stay now.
So Lek, how many elephants do you have currently in the Elephant nature park?
We have, at the moment, 119. Next week will be 123, because we rescue four more.
Wow. So you’re doing great work at saving elephants who have been injured, and elephants in need. I’ve seen a wonderful film that features you, called Love And Bananas, An Elephant Story, and there are many times when you’re sitting directly underneath a three ton elephant, how are you able to have that connection with an elephant, and not be afraid that the elephant is going to crush you?
I tell to you, I feel safe to stay under the [inaudible 00:23:43] more than I walk along the street side, because it’s, when I sit there I feel peaceful, I feel protection. They will never do harm to me, because it’s, even they move their feet. They be careful every step. And sometime, during the midday, the lunchtime, I will spend my time to sit there, and they would have a trunk and to touch me all the time, and they go, okay mommy, you are there, are you still okay? And they would check me all the time, and sometime one elephant will come and grab me out from, pull me out from the other one, to there to be under them. And they have behavior like a human, that jealousy. See, sometime when I stay with this they will call me. They fight to help me under them, and I completely feel safe under them.
It’s amazing to see your connection to the elephants. Lek, how do you think that you’ve changed attitudes in your country towards elephants, based on your activism?
If I talk like 15 years ago, it’s very difficult. When I start to invite many of the camp owner. We have about 300 camp before Covid, and many people that is there really enjoy to make money from elephant riding and circus, because we have a lot of Chinese tourists to come sometime like a million, million people a year to come to use elephants service. And when I start to talk to them, they laugh. And I invite so many people to change their way from riding and elephants circus to be the ethical program, or to do more humane business. And many of them just said no, they don’t care for that, because they can make money from riding and circus. They feel secure on that.
So it’s very difficult when we start to talk to them and they don’t change. So we create the volunteer program, and we have the people who come from around the world to work with us, and I educate the people from that point, and from these people they become our elephant ambassador. When they know better, they do better.
So the inspiration from what they have learned from Elephant Nature Park drive these people to go around the world, to go back to their home. They start to help us to educate. They start to campaign to the guidebook, they start to campaign the travel agency. So when the people start to get educated, and they start to show about the training class, so many travel agencies start to announcement that they don’t support the elephant show circus, and when the market outside start to say no, then the [inaudible 00:26:45] came in Thailand.
And if you come to Thailand right now, compared to 15 years ago, you will see the poster everywhere. They call about elephant sanctuary, elephant retirement, elephant conservation, no [inaudible 00:27:01], no show, no riding. And most business start to advertising, because it’s follow the work we have educate for over decades, it have changed the market, and especially I have the hope of the young generation that who can help us to voice for the elephant, and the attitude of the people now start to change.
Well Lek, that’s a huge accomplishment. Just to end with for our listeners, what can they do to help? How can they get involved to save Asian elephants?
I always tell people education is a big impact. We can’t win the people if they come to ride elephant or they have to come see the animal show, because the people didn’t know. But if the people know, they won’t do it. So I think we have to educate the other who didn’t know that. And now, every one that can help us to voice for the elephant, we have the most powerful tool in our hand, is the social media, and animals can’t have that. So we can create that to help to educate people, share to your Facebook, your Twitter, Instagram, and then educate the others. And for social media is a really can help us for a big chain and can speak a thousand words for the animals.
And as well that so many people who doesn’t know, they lost the way, we cannot insult them, we have to gentle, and give them the point, and guide them to the right way. And I would like to also to talk to many animal right. So animal right people always talk that is they love animal, but they hate people. And I think that is maybe we have to change our way to work. We cannot use word hate, because if we love animal, we have to work with people as well. We have to care to people who doesn’t know, and we have to work with love and care, and bring them to understand us, and we cannot push them away. And this is the only way that we can help the animals, and speak to them when they don’t know that. I think this is the only best way we can do right now.
Well Lek, thank you so much for being my guest on all about change. I really admire your dedication, and the devotion that you’ve given your whole life to saving the Asian elephant, and improving our environment. So thank you so much, and I wish that you will go from strength to strength.
Thank you so much.
When Lek speaks, you can hear so many things in her voice. She can be somber, but also hopeful and determined. Above all, you can sense how much respect and reverence she has for elephants.
These animals have long been subjected to cruelty and exploitation, and not just in Thailand. How can we change that? Tweet us @JayRuderman and give us your take.
Thank you for joining us today. Check back here in two weeks as I sit down with Jean Wiener, the environmental activist restoring coastlines in Haiti. Today’s episode was produced by Kim Huang, with story editing by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu.
To check out more episodes or learn more about the show, you can visit our website allaboutchangepodcast.com. If you enjoy our show, please help us spread the word, tell a friend or family member, or leave us a review on your favorite podcasting app. We would really appreciate it all about Change is produced by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Special thanks to our production team at Pod People, David Zwick, Grace Piña, Morgan Fouse , Bryan Rivers and Aimee Machado.
That’s all for now. I’m Jay Ruderman, and we’ll see you next time on All About Change.
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