One year ago I visited the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai. The camp was created by Sangduen Chailert (Lek) who has been working to protect Thai elephants throughout her life. Many elephant camps around Thailand exploit elephants to make a profit. Lek’s camp was created as a sanctuary for elephants. Her aim is to purchase mistreated elephants and allow them to retire at her camp which is located in some beautiful misty, green mountains in Northern Thailand.
Lek’s story sounds like the making of a Hollywood movie. She was featured in a National Geographic video which exposed the brutality of the phajaan. This term can be translated to mean “crush” and is a technique used to “crush” the spirit of a wild elephant and thereby tame them. The phajaan involves locking an elephant in a tiny pen which prevents any movement. The young elephant who is newly separated from their mother is beaten, deprived of sleep for several days, and jabbed with sharp spears. This is done until the elephant submits to human commands.
The National Geographic documentary exposed this inhumane practice. This video was shown to the visitors of Lek’s camp and her assistant, an Australian woman named Michele, told Lek’s story. Michele explained that shortly after the video was released, the animal rights group PETA held an international press conference, at which they played the video and then called for a complete ban of tourism in Thailand. The entire country lost face.
As a backlash to this tactic, Lek was completely vilified. A price was placed for Lek’s assassination and she was forced to go into hiding. While living underground, one of her baby elephants was poisoned and murdered.
Several years later, the uproar has died down and Lek is no longer in fear for her life. She can be found spending her days caring for her herd of elephants and seeking new animals to rescue. She was featured in the October issue of National Geographic and Time Magazine named her as one of Asia’s forty heroes this year.
The camp itself is absolutely amazing. It feels like a Disney movie. Each of the elephants has such an interesting story and very distinct personalities. One elephant was blinded by its abusive owner. This elephant is watched closely by two other elephants who act as its eyes. There were old elephants, a baby elephant, and a “white” elephant, together forming a family that is the herd.
One elephant had recently been captured in Chiang Mai after having gone on a rampage and destroying much of a restaurant. Police captured the elephant and didn’t know what to do with it, so they delivered it to Lek. The night we were there, the drunken owner arrived and insisted on retrieving “his” animal. The elephant had already bonded with the other elephants and was doing wonderfully at the camp. However, there was nothing Lek could do to stop its owner from forcing the frightened animal into the back of a truck in the middle of the night. The scene was heartbreaking.
The elephant is a national symbol of Thailand. Yet, elephants and their owners are forced to beg for money in the streets of Bangkok. Many of the animals are abused and they are disappearing from the forests. I highly recommend visiting Lek’s camp and supporting her cause. Visit the camp website and consider supporting a very good cause.