Her name is Sangduen Chailert. But everyone calls her "Lek." She is small of stature, and Lek means "small" in her native Thai language. But Lek Chailert is a determined person, hoping to make a big impact. Ironically, for a person named "small," Lek works with very large animals. Elephants, to be exact. My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting her last fall on a vacation trip with our grandchildren in Thailand.
At Lek's Elephant Nature Park, the animals don't do tricks or give rides. Because most of them have been abused by previous owners, they are given an opportunity to recover and to live as God made them to.
Lek cares for 24 elephants on her mountain property about 60 kilometers outside the ancient Thai capital of Chiang Mai. Her first project was a baby elephant, orphaned when local farmers killed its mother because she was eating their crops. Lek adopted baby Geng Mai, and fed her with a very large baby bottle.
Each of Lek's elephants has a story. Almost all needed some kind of rescue--from physical abuse, from starvation, from neglect, from overwork. The abuse of domesticated Thai elephants begins with the centuries-old training method called phajaan or "the crush." Young elephants are chained into a strong framework where they are poked and cut with sharp implements until their spirits are crushed. The treatment is so brutal that only about 50 percent of the elephants survive. The rest die from infections or other hazards. A few actually commit suicide by standing on their own trunks in order to cut off their air supplies.
Lek Chailert wants to convince Thais that they can train elephants with kindness. She is beginning to get some press exposure. In the United States, National Geographic did a feature package ...