Known for her small size, this larger than life Thai woman has created a safe haven for abused elephants. She has been a recipient of several prestigious awards and the focus of hard hitting documentaries. In this interview, Lek Chaillert sits down with Elemotion Foundation to discuss her elephant park, future projects, and feelings about her elephant ‘children’. Interview Sept, 2010
1-Tell me about the new construction projects at the park?
This year, we are working on repairs and adding an elephant shelter. Normally, we must chain the elephants at night because we have no fence. My goal is to never see elephants chained. So, in the new shelter, the family can cuddle and be happy together without chains. At night, we will have a camera so we can view them and follow their behavior. They are very happy in the daytime. I want to see how they feel free at night. I want them to sleep well. Like you and me, we do not want to sleep with a chain on our legs. I want them totally free.
2-How many visitors do you have?
Approximately 40 people a day. About 1,200 people a month (volunteers and day visitors together).
3-Where do you find the elephants that you rescue?
We find the elephants we rescue from everywhere; street begging, logging, trekking, tourist circus. We get so many calls for help. When we get a complaint, we go to see the elephant which needs help. And if it is really urgent, like they are dying, we start negotiations with the owner. If they don’t ask too much money, we will take them to the park.
4-You are training some of the young elephants with positive reinforcement. Since they are at the park and will never work a day in their lives, why do you train them?
When the baby is first born, I introduce myself right away to the mother, the baby, and also the nanny. I communicate with them from the first day. The mother can feed the baby milk, and the baby also knows that sometimes I sing for her, pet her. And when she needs to sleep, I lullaby her and chase the bugs for her. She feels a lot of care. This is the first lesson I call love and trust. When she receives the love from me and she trusts me, even the herd trusts me. Then for the second lesson, I will train her to listen (to) the word. To listen (to) the word means if I ask her, she will learn to lie down, in case she is injured on her feet. Or if she has sore teeth, she will open her mouth for me. Then I can help her. We do positive reinforcement training only to help the elephants. We don’t want to train them to perform or obey for humans.
5-Do you feel that you have a gift or something special that helps you to communicate and interact with elephants?
I don’t think that I am a special person. Elephants are very intelligent. Somehow they know that when I stand next to them, I won’t harm them. They can read your mind. If they know that you love them, they will never do any harm. Anyone can have that gift if you really love them.
6-Tell me about elephant heaven and why is it important?
Elephant heaven is really my goal and dream. The young elephants need a place to run free where they don’t have to go bathe or wait for people to feed them. We will make a real home in the forest for them, a safe place. The mahouts will guard the elephants from a distance. If the elephant needs us, it can come to us. But we won’t disturb them. The volunteers can still visit and see them, but from a high (observation) place. This will be a real home for the elephant.
7-You have programs such as Jumbo Express and Surin, do you have any other projects that you would like people to know about.
Yes, we have a new project that we just created in June 2010 called Journey to Freedom. After I did research about the Karen and their elephants for many years, and I found that the situation is quite sad. In northern Thailand, we have the Karen people who have handled and looked after elephants for many hundreds of years. I found that the new generation does not want to handle elephants anymore. Because the economy and society has changed, many of them come to the city to study and learn about new technology. Some families lease their elephants to the owner of a trekking camp. These elephants get abused and are overworked. They swing their heads and are not happy. I want to make the Karen proud of their treasure. So, we are bringing the elephants back to them. I ask any Karen elephant family if they are interested to join our project. We will bring their elephant back from the camp and pay them, the same that the camp pays, to free their elephant. Now, we have seven elephants who live in the jungle, all different ages. You can see the project on our website. And, we bring volunteers to come and see how beautiful the elephants are in the nature. The volunteers can also work with the Karen people. This is a beautiful area. The program will operate on the 4th of October this year.
8-Can you tell me a little bit about the research you have done on elephant painting.
So many people say that in elephant painting, the elephant never gets abused. The elephant suddenly jumps up and starts painting. That’s not true. I have researched this for a long time. If you don’t force them, they will not paint. No way, it will never work. Sometimes they use very young babies who do not accept (the training) easily, so they get beaten. When the baby elephant gets beaten, it gets stressed. They are painting because they want to survive, not because they want to do it. They are afraid of the painting. I guarantee that behind elephant painting, the training is not nice at all. During the training the baby elephant may be injured, and some can die.
9-What is your message for Thai people?
We spread the news to young people in schools and universities about the elephant and tell them the situation. It is important to raise awareness about the elephant in Thailand. I want to tell to Thai people that we must be proud of our beautiful creatures. The elephant has helped Thailand a lot. In history, they helped to save our country, build the roads, and fight battles together with the king. They are part of our society, but the young generation seems to forget about that. Also, I want our Thai government to do something to make sure that elephants get enough protection. At the moment, we don’t have a strong law to protect them.
10-What is your final goal?
I want all the elephants to be happy and get respect, not only from just Thai people but from people around the world. I want this for all animals. I close my eyes and see people being more kind to animals. When they are traveling, I don’t want them to think that their money can be used to buy the animals to entertain them. They should care more and be more responsible. I hope that in the future, animal circuses are out of the program. Elephant painting, dancing, and circuses should go. All animals should be out of the tourist industry.
11-What do you want your visitors to learn or remember?
In the park, we focus on education and telling the situation of the Thai elephant. We want people to see elephants in the nature and respect them. We try to send our message around the world. And also, we hope and expect that when people leave the park, they go out and educate more people. We want to build a network. As the park owner, I am like the gatekeeper. Every day, I build the fence to protect the elephants and other animals.
12-Do you have a favorite elephant, either past or present?
I can’t just say that. When you have a big family in your house, certainly you have to share your love for everybody. You have to care for them all. You can’t just pick. When the mother has several kids, she can’t just pick which baby she loves more. When a new elephant arrives and is very sick, I have to leave the healthy ones to look after the sick one to make sure that it survives. When they are better, I start looking to rescue one more. I love all (of them) the same.
13-Do you believe that the bonds between elephants, whether maternal or companionship, are stronger than the bonds we share as humans?
I have worked with elephants for many years. I have never seen any bond like the love between elephants in any other animal, even humans. The love among them is unconditional love. They are totally opposite from humans. When they submit their love to somebody, they love forever. And, the more they stay together, the more polite they are to each other. This is totally opposite from humans. Or, if an elephant becomes a nanny, not even (blood) related to the baby, she can die for that baby. They will leave anything if that baby elephant cries or screams. All elephants will come to the baby’s rescue. It’s beautiful.
14-Do you have a hero or someone who inspires you?
I have many heroes. Diane Fossey is one person I admire. Aung San Suu Kyi. She is another one who does not give up. Nelson Mandela is also one of my heroes. I have so many heroes who I take as examples in different ways.