My elephant love began with a powerful personal experience that felt like a dream, yet it happened in daylight and I was awake. I had a vision of an elephant standing before me, looking me in the eyes with what felt like maternal love and protection. I cannot explain how this happened or the meaning I was to take from it, but I was filled with a sudden and deep longing to stand face-to-face before a real, live elephant.
I began reading about elephants, and with their stories my respect and love for them deepened. In my naiveté, I had a romantic notion of traveling to a far-off jungle and riding an elephant bareback. As I researched travel destinations, I was horrified to learn about the abuse of elephants in captivity and how they are tortured into submission before being brought to work in most elephant parks and used as amusement for tourists on Bangkok’s city streets. It is unnatural for an elephant to paint pictures, play instruments and carry untold numbers of strangers on their backs, so in order for them to do so they are beaten until their sprits are broken.
I then learned of Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, a woman who has devoted her life to saving Thailand’s elephants, one elephant at a time. Through her Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park, she rescues abused elephants and nurtures them back to health in a safe, natural environment. Her story reminds me that one person can make a true difference in this world. With love, hopefulness and determination, even a beaten down spirt can find new life and happiness.
It became a dream of mine to visit Lek’s Elephant Nature Park in the northern hills of Thailand. And this New Year Eve, my dream became a reality when my family visited Lek and spent a day getting to know her elephants in their natural surroundings
We arrived at the sanctuary which was about an hour and half drive from the city of Chaing Mai. Our guide, Aek, had come to the sanctuary as a volunteer and was moved to stay on and work there. It was easy to see how that could happen; we were all taken with Lek’s vision and how meticulously it has been carried out from the vast sanctuary tucked into the hills, to her methods for nursing newcomers and integrating them into her growing herd, to the quality of the food and care that is provided.
We were first introduced to the elephants by standing on a platform that separated us with a fence. As they reached their trunks though the stakes, we placed large chunks of watermelon, rind and all, against the sides of their trunks and watched as they wrapped their trunks around the melon and lifted the food into their mouths.
After snack time, we were taken out to the field and permitted to watch the elephants from a distance. Aek told us that elephants can live 120 years, and pointed out several 80 year old elephants. With such a long lifespan, elephants often outlive their owners and can be passed through generations of a family, Aek explained.
Aek cautioned us that it could be hazardous to stand too close to a baby elephant if the adults feel a threat present. I experienced this first hand while I stood near baby Bua Loy and heard shouts to get out of the way. I turned and saw four or five adult elephants coming towards me from no more than 20-30 feet away! Oddly, I was unafraid and didn’t even flinch, so sure that they would sense my heart-felt love and not trample me. Someone with less idyllic notions pulled me away before the elephants reached me. I was unshaken and felt completely at ease standing just a few feet away as they surrounded the baby and made sure that he was safe.
After enjoying a feast of freshly prepared dishes, we watched a National Geographic film, “Vanishing Giants,” which I have included in its entirety at the end of this post. The film includes footage of the phagaan training ritual to domesticate elephants, where a baby elephant is pulled from its mother and tied up in a confined pen no bigger than its own body. Unable to move, it is beaten for days on end with sharp instruments. The calf is usually never reunited with its mother and is brought to do domestic service, carrying tourists and preforming to bring money to its owner. Although wild elephants are protected under Thai law, domesticated elephants are not, since they are classified as livestock.
Although elephants are revered in Thai culture, and are iconic symbols of power and strength, we learned that the once flourishing population of elephants in Thailand has dwindled to only 5% of what it was just 50 years ago, leaving fewer than 5000 elephants, about half of whom are domestic and are subjected to these abuses.
“If they keep the situation like this, I can’t see the future for them,” says Lek, who is devoted to providing medical care to these and all elephants within her reach. When she is not tending to her herd, she travels deep into the jungle to areas so remote as to be only reached by boat to treat wounded and ill elephants. Lek raises money to buy as many of these elephants as she can, but because they serve as revenue producers for their owners, the purchase prices are steep.
Many of the elephants that she can rescue have been beaten beyond use to the owners. She brings them home and doesn’t leave their sides for days, nights and weeks on end, sleeping with them, bottle feeding them, grinding healing herbs into medicines and loving them until they begin to spring back to life. And they do spring back to life, as we witnessed in this thriving happy herd!
Across the river, we watched elephants from another elephant camp carrying visitors on their backs and into the river and we cringed knowing the sadness and torment that they had borne. One woman yelled, “Run across to freedom!” We realized that we could have been one of those tourists if we hadn’t been exposed to this education. And we sighed and vowed to educate our friends at home about the plight of these gentle vanishing giants.
Aek asked if I wanted to meet Lek, and I eagerly agreed. I don’t know why he singled me out, but perhaps he felt my sincerity that day. He led me and my family to Lek’s office where she stood outside with a colleague. Her stature felt much greater than her actual height, and I felt an intense energy run through me as she allowed me to embrace her.
We told Lek our desire to sponsor one of her elephants and asked her which one most needed assistance. My daughter suggested Bua Loy and Lek agreed that this would be a good choice.
I asked Lek what more we could do, and she asked that we educate our friends at home. She told us that this day Beyoncé had tweeted a photograph of herself riding a baby elephant in Thailand and how she feared this would encourage her many fans to follow suit. My family wished that we could reach out to Beyoncé and tell her what we had learned about riding these elephants, especially a baby. None of us believed that Beyoncé would have meant any harm, and that she would help educate those she influences if she only knew the truth.
It was difficult to say good-bye, but I felt joy knowing these elephants are living as close to a free life as possible and are loved and respected for the gentle and powerful beings that they are.
There are days that just seem to pass by without notice, and some that stand out and become part of the fabric of my life. This was a truly magical day that I will carry into this new year and beyond.
In my Lifted Pilates™ blog, I will continue to write about topics that may not be Pilates related but that perhaps will lift you as they have me. And, I hope that you agree that this story is about a woman with a very strong core!
Lek offered us a copy of the film, “Vanishing Giants,” and encouraged us to share it. The entire film is included here.
[Film coming soon]
Lek Chailert’s efforts have been recognized worldwide and have appeared on television and print media including National Geographic and the Smithsonian Society and in feature documentaries from numerous film production companies including Animal Planet, the BBC, and CNN. Lek Chailert was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time magazine in 2005 and received at the White House by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010.
Her sanctuary is also home to over 400 dogs, 50 buffalo, 30 cats, 2 horses, 2 pigs, a monkey and a cow who live in peace with their elephant family.