Throughout the history of conservation there have been individuals whose influence and impact has been profound and yet started with just a simple idea and a desire to create "change" combined with great deal of passion. During my recent winter trip to Southeast Asia, I met one such person whose simple idea has blossomed into a unique and successful wildlife conservation project. Her name is Sangduen Chailert (Lek) and she is the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, located in the wild terrain of the Mae Taman valley in Northern Thailand.
Born in the 1960s in a remote mountain community in Northern Thailand, Lek's love of elephants began at an early age. Her family cared for an elephant which became a close companion of Lek's. This affection led to working with elephants in the forests, including providing basic veterinary care to elephants employed by various tourist trekking camps. During this time, she saw the poor conditions that elephants often lived under, the cruelty and suffering and felt she could provide a better place for them.
The purchase and rescuing of two distressed and mistreated elephants in 1995 marked the start of how and why the Elephant Nature Park came into existence. Today, the park provides a sanctuary for 34 elephants that have been saved from the horrendous conditions they had previously endured working or performing, and are now allowed to heal and to live naturally in their self-chosen family groups in peace and dignity.
I had the fortunate opportunity to meet Lek and spend an unforgettable week with her herd while volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. I was one of a group of 40 volunteers from all around the world who all came together to help Lek advance her mission at the park. We were a wildly diverse group, but it was Lek's emphasis on rescue, conservation and education rather than "shows" or tricks that resonated within each of us. We quickly learned that caring for a herd of elephants is a massive undertaking with most of the work centered on providing enough food to feed 34 elephants.
A typical day began with a small group of volunteers traveling to a neighboring farm to harvest approximately an acre of corn which represented the bulk of each elephant's daily diet. We thrashed through prickly corn stalks wielding rusty antiquated machetes in mostly uncoordinated ways trying to add to the 150-200lbs of food each elephant required on a daily basis. At 10:00am the temperature was approaching 90 degrees and the work was exhausting. I was tired, dirty, sweating and loving every minute of it.
Back at the park, food preparations continued throughout the morning as a steady stream of local farmers arrived in trucks overflowing with bananas, watermelons, pumpkins and other treats that needed to unloaded, washed, and parceled out according to each elephant's particular tastes or dietary restrictions (apparently, watermelon is "elephant Viagra" for a juvenile male). Oversized laundry baskets with each elephant's name helped create order amongst the chaos.
The elephants roam freely throughout the day and graze as desired in between two scheduled feedings. The feedings offers park visitors as well as volunteers a unique opportunity to bond with the elephants up close. I looked forward to these feedings every day and can only describe the experience as magical. Getting covered in fruit pulp and elephant snot seemed to only add to the experience.
Of course, after such a lavish lunch buffet, an afternoon swim was a high priority for the elephants. My fellow volunteers and I armed with buckets and brushes would walk the elephants down to the river that meanders through the camp for this daily bathing ritual. Despite their thick skin, an afternoon dip is not only an escape from the oppressive heat but an effective guard against parasites and other irritating skin conditions. Not surprisingly, wading into the river to wash and scrub elephants is great fun, and from the amount of playful splashing it was obvious that the elephants love it too.
The day continues with a few more chores and assisting in a variety of on-going projects and maintenance tasks around the park. I routinely found myself precariously perched on the roofs of fast-moving overloaded trucks, clinging to the sides of tractors and engaged in a variety of other Thai-inspired methods and protocols that would be positively illegal in the US, but ultimately made the experience that much more raw and authentic.
Each day offered opportunities to get to know the elephants through feeding, bathing and perhaps just as rewarding, simple observation. Individual character and personality seemed glaringly apparent as I observed them inter-connect and display their obvious affection for each other. I believe that any volunteer or visitor fortunate enough to visit the Elephant Nature Park will be offered a profound, insightful and enlightening educational experience like no zoo, circus or even safari ever can.
Lek continues to work to help save the Asian elephant from extinction and give domesticated elephants a life worth living by preserving habitat and increasing public awareness on humane treatment practices. From humble beginnings, hard work and sheer determination has brought Lek and her Elephant Nature Park to the forefront of efforts in Asia to save the elephant.
Visit the park's Web site at Elephantnaturepark.org to learn more about Lek and her unique conservation project.
Scott Slavik is a Backcountry Ranger on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and a frequent visitor to Southeast Asia.
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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge Web site. http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.
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