Ten years ago Sangduen “Lek” Chailert saw an elephant being mistreated while working in the timber industry. It had a logged chained to it’s body as it tried to move forward. When the chain cut the animal’s skin, its pain moved Chailert so much that she made it her life’s work to help, heal and rescue elephants in a country where the animals are revered but are also still a crucial part of the work force.
In Thailand, today there are less than 500 Asian elephants left and the animals are still an important part of the timber industry as well as the tourism industry.
A decade ago when Chailert saw an elephant lifting a heavy log chained to its body, she decided to work and save the injured animals and thus opened the charity Elephant Nature Foundation in Northern Thailand which is a sanctuary and a rescue centre.
“When I first saw elephants pulling logs in the jungle it changed my life,” she said. “As it pulled the chain to move the logs it cut deep in to his skin… I saw the look in his eye and the pain he was in. I couldn’t get it out of my head and it made me realize I need to go and do something for the elephants, someone needs to stand up for them, they can’t speak so I need to do it for them.”
She also started a mobile ambulance service to treat the animals that were stranded or injured in remote villages. Called the Jumbo Express, Chailert and her team of volunteers travel to the remotest hill villages in Thailand in this elephant field clinic administering emergency health care to stricken animals.
“When I visit the villages I see so many elephants suffering but not just elephants, cats, dogs, hens and other animals and there’s not much that can be done because these villages are so remote there are no doctors up there to help,” she said.
In 1989 Thailand put a ban on logging but the move also meant that thousands of elephant were left unemployed. With shrinking forests, and lack of work in the jungles for the elephants and their owners, they were forced to move to cities and beg.
Many others became part of the tourism industry, working in elephant camps and circuses.
“The required extreme restraint of animals in the vast majority of elephant camps does not allow for free movements of the animals,” says Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, from the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
“Elephants are some of the most socially developed mammals in the world, with the females forming large and stable groups for all their life. Depriving them from social interaction with other elephants must be seen as an act of cruelty,” stresses Dr. Schmidt-Burbach.
“From the venues we know of in Thailand, the majority allow only very limited social interaction with other elephants, usually only if chained up near one another,” he continued.
Chailert believes that the elephant’s condition in the country can only be improved by educating people at the grassroots level.
The Jumbo Express comes in handy for this purpose too.
When a team is visiting a village, the volunteers help educate the locals on how to take care of the elephant in a proper way. This is done to ensure that even after they leave, the elephants are given the attention they deserve.
“It is really hard sometimes seeing people abusing the animals but sometimes it is down to a lack of education,” Chailert explains.
Sometimes even the mahout, does not have the skills to take care of the elephant he owns. Chailert shares an example of a jungle elephant that was used for safaris. There was a piece of glass bottle logged into the animal’s foot but it continued to take tourists and walk in continuous pain as the mahout did not know how to remove the bottle.
“They don’t treat their animals properly when they are sick and there is the risk that disease will spread to their families,” Chailert said.
“So when we go up there we decide to educate the villagers on how to care for the elephants with the same love they show towards their families and ask them for their co-operation to look up to the animal,” she continued.
She also warns that today tourism is the biggest threat to the animals.
“We don’t want to discourage tourism, it helps the elephant but we need to educate the people in how to look after their animals in a more humane way, but the problem right now is that they see tourists there and they see nothing but money,” Chailert said.
Fondly called the elephant queen in Thailand, it is up to Chailert and her Jumbo Express to give Thailand’s elephants their life back.