Saving The World One Elephant At A Time

Lek has earned the moniker “the elephant whisperer” because of the elephants’ fondness of her. She has received numerous awards and recognition including Asian Hero of the Year by TIME Magazine in 2005.

Motherhood is never an easy task and being a “mother” to Asia’s largest land animals, well, it can be just as challenging.  Just ask Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature Foundation and Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Born from a small hill tribe village of Baan Lao, Lek’s love for pachyderms began at an early age when her grandfather, a local healer, was given a baby elephant as a gift.  Thongkum (The Golden One), as the new family member was fondly called, would then have a huge impact on the young Lek.

After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chiang Mai University, Lek became part of the tourist industry where she helped in the placement of unemployed elephants for small trekking companies. Take note, it was either be sold or beg in the congested streets of Thailand’s big cities for the poor out-of-work elephants when logging was banned in country in the 1990s. Noticing how the domesticated of the species were abused and neglected by their “employers,” Lek turned her back on the trekking industry and took on the cause of the domestic elephant, starting a field clinic for the sick and injured – later on giving rise to the Elephant Nature Park, a 2000 acre sanctuary and rescue center for these gentle giants.

Although elephant camps abound in this part of Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park is a unique effort – it is the only camp that rescues mistreated elephants, providing them a place to heal and live naturally in family groups. With it’s aim of saving the Asian elephant from extinction and giving domestic elephants a second lease on life, the Elephant Nature Park is home to more than 30 elephants, all of which has a heart-breaking story to tell. Most popular among them are: Jokia, the blind; Malai Tong, the landmine victim; and Mae Boon Ma, the almost-white elephant rescued from a trekking camp.

Unlike most elephant attractions in the kingdom, the residents of the park are not allowed to have visitors ride their backs, lift and pull heavy objects, nor paint silly pictures. In fact, they have a good time just grazing the vast field, bathing in the river, and playing in the mud pit – a few activities that elephants should normally do in their natural environment.

(clockwise) Lek spends quality time with an elephant calf; day visitors bathing a pair by the river; calves enjoying the mudpit; feeling at home in the park

The park ensures that these elephants’ interests, both short and long term, are met via several programs that include preserving natural habitats that would allow the species to thrive; mahout (elephant handler) education that focuses on positive reinforcement and mutual respect; local community involvement; and the “Jumbo Express” a mobile clinic which aims to form and maintain alliances with remote communities involved with elephants by providing free supplies and medical care for to both people and animals.

One of the more popular programs at the park is the volunteer support from people around the world. Led by a trained staff, volunteers work alongside locals for about one to three weeks on projects that directly benefit the quality of life for the park’s inhabitants. Activities revolve around basic elephant care, community outreach programs, and maintenance in and around the park.

Aside from elephants, more than 300 dogs also call the park “home.” Originally just housing several dozen canines, many rescued from the dog meat trade, the number increased after last year’s flooding. During the height of the catastrophe, many dogs were abandoned by their owners, and after the waters has resided, most of them were left on the streets without any survival skills. Just like her efforts in rescuing elephants, Lek, along with her partner Darrick, felt the need to do the same for man’s bestfriend. The new dog sanctuary provides these canines with a home where they are safe, well-fed, and loved.

Lek oversees that everything at the park is in order, but her biggest battle yet, is in the outside world where thousands of elephants still need protection. A century ago there were about 100,000 elephants in Thailand, today they only number between 2500 to 5000 and is on the list of endangered species by the World Conservation Union. Considered to be an important cultural and religious icon, the elephant’s status as a national symbol does not really protect it from abuse or it’s rapid decline in number. It is ironic that the domestic elephants receive little or no protection at all – by Thai law, they are considered livestock. And just like a matriarch to her herd, that’s where Lek comes in – to protect her family at all costs. Through her hard work and determination, Lek hopes that her message about the conservation and humane treatment of the Asian Elephant is heard by people all over the world.


SCENIC ROUTE:  You will be picked up from your hotel in Chiang Mai around 8 AM for a picturesque hour-long drive to the Mae Taeng Valley where the park is located.

EDUCATIONAL TOUR: The park’s guides will show you around the area while telling you the life stories of the rescued elephants. You will learn about the plight of the Asian elephant and how the organization is addressing these issues.

BATH TIME: After learning how to properly and safely bathe an elephant, you get the chance to walk with them to the nearby river where you can give your new skills a try. Afterwards, you will be brought to a feeding platform where you can hand-feed each elephant fruits and vegetables.

The price for a day’s visit to the park is 2500 THB (P 3300.00) and as a non-profit organization, the cost of every visit directly supports the elephants at the park.

For more information about Elephant Nature Park visit To book visit


This appears as a feature in Leisure + Adventure TRAVEL magazine (Vol 5/ Oct-Nov 2012/ Philippines).

For more of my Elephant Nature Park related material please check out my set on flickr and my website.