Written by: Eve Kanram

Sangdeaun “Lek” Chailert was born in the remote village of Baan Lao, just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Lek learnt how to care for various animals from her grandfather at a very young age. He was a healer for the local community, who treated both people and animals, and would allow Lek to help him look after any animals that were sick or injured.

Although Lek had a deep respect for animals as a child, it wasn’t until she was 16 that she had an experience that changed the course of her life forever. Lek came across a logging camp and witnessed first-hand the abuse that the working elephants faced in their day to day lives. From then on, she decided that she would dedicate her life to ending the exploitation of elephants.

Lek later founded the Save Elephant Foundation and the Elephant Nature Park in 1995. At her sanctuary, Lek created a safe environment for elephants to roam freely and do as they please. This is in stark contrast to the conditions and abuse they would have previously endured; some elephants are so damaged physically or psychologically that they never recover. At the Elephant Nature Park, there are approximately 400 employees, and Lek has worked hard to recruit mahouts from both the tourism and logging industries to care for the elephants in her 250-acre sanctuary. By employing mahouts, Lek has provided an opportunity and incentive to leave the mainstream tourism industry and illegal logging industry, to join her in ensuring the well-being of an endangered species. As well as mahouts, the Elephant Nature Park employs local hill tribe communities, who make up around 75% of the workforce. Working with Lek provides nearby communities with an opportunity to diversify their livelihoods while staying local, which can keep family and friends together.  

As The Elephant Nature Park attracts thousands of volunteers and visitors who wish to interact ethically with the animals, Lek has been responsible for increasing awareness about cruelty free elephant experiences. This increased awareness has helped tourists to make better choices and is a step in the right direction towards ending elephant exploitation as we know it today.

Lek is an inspiration. But one of the many challenges that she still faces, is standing up against the mainstream tourism industry, which, despite her work, still promotes activities such as elephant riding, elephant circuses and elephant shows. However, Lek remains positive, and believes that exploitation in the tourism industry can be overcome through education and love. She has already won over former opponents, who changed their ways once they saw that they could still make a living while doing good. This gives Lek hope, and she will never give up.

We would firstly like to thank Lek for kindly giving us permission to share her story and photograph. You can find out more about The Elephant Nature Park here, and the Save Elephant foundation here.

To find out more about Lek, and the issues raised in the story, watch these interviews on YouTube –  here and here