Lek Chailert is a powerhouse. At just over five feet tall, Lek (which means “small” in Thai), has single-handedly tackled elephant abuse in the logging and tourism industry in Thailand, working on behalf of Asian elephants and rescuing hundreds from neglect in the process.
She’s the founder of Elephant Nature Park, a Chiang Mai park where over 80 elephants are free to live peacefully on 250 acres of land. There, she works with volunteers and government officials to educate the world about elephant abuse in the tourism industry, and why we should stop riding elephants all together. In this edited interview, Unearth Women’s Executive Editor, Kelly Lewis, sat down with Lek to talk about her work and what she wants all tourists in Thailand to know.
Unearth Women (UW): You have been a tireless advocate for saving and preserving Asian elephants. Where did it all begin for you?
Lek Chailert (LK): I’ve seen so many elephants suffer, fall down, die and be beaten to accommodate what people expect. The only way to stop [the abuse] is we must stand up and give elephants a voice. That is one of the reasons I decided to work for them.
Before, elephants worked hard for the logging industry but these days elephants work in the tourism industry and it is even worse because people expect more, and the elephants suffer more because of it. I saw an elephant when I was in a working area and the elephant was constantly being beaten despite being sick. The owner said he didn’t know where to put the elephant and would work him until he fell down and died. Thailand’s elephants are old, blind, limp, and still forced to work.
UW: When did you first start Elephant Nature Park?
LK: I founded Elephant Nature Park in 1996 in a small area and moved to a bigger space in 2003. Someone donated the land to help protect us. Right now there are 85 elephants at the park, and we have 35 projects elsewhere. There are currently over 200 elephants under our care.
UW: How has Elephant Nature Park and your mission behind it grown?
LK: We have over 2,000 animals now. We have 400 cats and 600 dogs that we have rescued from surrounding areas. We also have horses and donkeys; we will take in any animals that need our help.
UW: Where else in Thailand does your organization have projects?
LK: There are now two projects in Phuket. The Phuket project is run by people who used to offer elephant trekking and who we convinced to open a refuge instead. Our Save Elephant Organization supports the Phuket project. We have people who help them and we send money until the project is independently sustainable. Right now we have a project in Cambodia and one in Kanchanaburi. Check our website for more information on the projects we currently have available.
UW: What would you like travelers to Thailand to understand about elephants?
LK: Many tourists are arguing that riding elephants isn’t bad because they weigh 3,500 kilos. What I want them to know is behind the scenes, life for elephants is terrible. They are forced to dance and ride and perform and are taken from their family and horribly abused. Travel with respect. We should be aware of where our money is going. I really want the tourists to be aware of this animal tourism industry and not support it.
Why do humans think we are qualified to ride elephants? Why do we think we should spend money on riding elephants, watching a tiger show, a crocodile show, or bird show? How can we educate younger generations to respect animals? Riding elephants is not ok. People think I’m a human and I work hard and I play hard. It’s time to educate. Education makes the change.
UW: Does your organization receive support from the Thai government?
LK: The government is starting to understand a little bit of my job. I have received support for many years from volunteers and they know better, to do better. Many come out and they become animal advocates and they start to speak for elephants. It’s not only me making a movement, it’s our volunteers who come out and decide to do this work.
UW: How can Unearth Women readers help support your work?
LK: Come to Elephant Nature Park, I need your voice. You are the one who can best help the elephants. Your voice is strong, but if you give misleading information, people will not understand. If you give them the right voice and the right direction, people will push for change.
Eight years ago, when you visited Chiang Mai you would see elephant riding offered everywhere. Today you don’t see as much elephant riding, elephant shows, and bull hooks—this is a very obvious change you can see. People in Chiang Mai and Phuket are more understanding about how they create this change.
I want to tell people that if they want to travel to Asia, there are so many ways to enjoy elephants without riding them. They can walk with them, observe and see them in their natural habitat, and support the camps who pledge not to abuse the animals. There are still thousands who offer elephant riding, but if you could support the 10 percent of camps that commit to humane practices, we can encourages others to make that change.