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Saengduean Lek Chailert: The Elephant Whisperer

Saengduean “Lek” Chailert believes that every creature deserves to be treated with respect. Lek has rescued and rehabilitated over 200 Asian elephants, and has created a loving sanctuary where they can live in peace and harmony.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by F+K Media. It was written by Sara Weiss and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Sura Siu. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Deep in the forests of northern Thailand, a little girl named Lek was walking through the brush next to her elephant friend, Thong Kham. A light drizzle fell on the thick, green leaves all around them both. Then, Thong Kham stopped and tapped Lek’s head with his trunk. She knew what he wanted. 

Lek took a banana from her bag and offered it up. Thong Kham grabbed the fruit with his trunk and tossed it into his mouth, his tail swinging. Then he let out a low rumbling sound of appreciation as Lek pet his gray, leathery skin.

This was their very special way of communicating with each other. This was their wa y of saying thank you, I love you, and you’re safe with me.

I’m Sura Siu. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  

On this episode, Saengduean “Lek”  Chailert, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. Lek has rescued and rehabilitated over 200 Asian elephants and has created a loving sanctuary where they can live in peace and harmony.

Saengduean Chailert was born in 1961 in a remote Thai village called Baan Lao. Everyone called her “Lek,” a Thai word for “small one.” 

Lek’s grandfather was a shaman, or healer, and after he helped save someone’s life, he was gifted with an elephant, named Thong Kham. Lek and Thong Kham loved exploring the wilderness together. Nothing brought Lek more joy than watching Thong Kham romp in the mud, his paper-thin ears flapping in the breeze. Lek felt like Thong Kham was part of her family. 

When Lek was sixteen, she saw something that changed her life. She was volunteering with a missionary in the jungle when she heard elephants trumpeting in distress. Lek followed the noise to get a closer look. When she found the elephants, they were chained to enormous trees, pulling and straining. They looked and sounded miserable.

Lek quickly learned that these were logging elephants, used by people to haul freshly cut trees. For over a century, the logging industry forced elephants to do this dangerous work. Not only were the elephants often injured doing this, but they were also losing their natural habitat.

One of the elephants Lek saw that day was stumbling as he tried to haul a huge log with his tusks and trunk. Lek watched in horror while an elephant trainer screamed and poked at the elephant’s head with a stick. The elephant moaned, and Lek saw that his eyes were filled with fear. She felt a shiver of panic rise through her body. 

She had to help this incredible creature. But how?

Over the next few years, Lek earned her university degree and worked many part-time jobs, trying to find out more about the wildlife around her. With the money she made, she bought medicine for elephants, and she returned to the jungle to help as many as she could. She soon learned how dire the situation was—Asian elephants had become endangered and could soon become extinct. She had to act now if she was going to save them.

In 1991, Lek started a mobile clinic called Jumbo Express. She drove around to remote villages in a truck giving out medicine and trying to soothe injured, neglected, or elderly elephants. It was demanding and exhausting work, jostling along bumpy roads and winding mountain paths, spending all day in the sun or the mud. But the journey was always worth it.

Lek felt like she had a deep connection to these amazing animals. She spoke to them gently and listened to each of their rumbles and vibrations. Soon, she became known throughout the region as the “elephant whisperer.”

After traveling around with the Jumbo Express for a few years, Lek was able to buy a small plot of land and create a rescue mission. She began to gather sick and injured elephants, and lead them back to her space to help them heal. 

Then, Lek received a very generous donation—250 acres of land in the lush, mountainous Mae Taeng Valley of Northern Thailand! Lek was so excited. She and a trusted team of animal advocates got to work, clearing out the overgrown brush, planting banyan trees and acacia. Lek was determined to turn this sweep of land into an elephant sanctuary — a place where elephants could graze in the fields, bathe in the river, and live full, peaceful lives.

And that is exactly what she did.

In 1998 Elephant Nature Park became the first elephant sanctuary park of it’s kind establishd in Asia.  Lek made sure to welcome each elephant with love and respect as they adjusted to their new surroundings. Many of the elephants were injured or orphaned. But with Lek’s gentle care and medical attention, they were able to rehabilitate and form new herds. They splashed in the mud, chewed on fresh leaves and trumpeted with joy.

Still, there were always new challenges. Many people in Northern Thailand relied on elephants to perform in circuses and give rides to tourists. People neededrelied on them for their livelihoods! The villagers came to Elephant Nature Park to protest and told her to leave. They d idn’t understand what this tiny woman was doing with all of this land, and all of these elephants who used to make the villagers money! 

Instead of fighting back, Lek listened to the villagers and invited them in. She gave them jobs and educated them about elephant welfare. Soon, the sanctuary became a community effort. Both the elephants and the people who had depended on them, began to thrive.

With kindness and compassion, Lek shared her love of elephants with more and more people. She visited trekking camps and spoke to the elephant trainers there too. With her guidance, some of them converted their trekking camps into sanctuaries for elephants, just like hers.

Today, Elephant Nature Park continues to flourish and expand. Lek and her team have rescued over 200 elephants, as well as dogs, cats, goats, boars, rabbits, horses, wild birds, buffalo and more.  

When any creature is brought to the park, they are greeted with soothing care and empathy. In this special place, they don’t have to perform for humans or haul heavy lumber. They can roam and heal, play and make new friends.

If you visit the Elephant Nature Park one day, you can observe the elephants in their natural state. You may also see Lek giving medicine to any of the animals who need it, or elbow deep in sticky rice and sweet banana as she packs the food into balls for feeding time. 

You might see her walking down a dirt path, her long braid slung over one shoulder, mountains towering above her, and a herd of elephants by her side. Maybe pausing to wrap their trunks around her like a hug. This is Lek in her element.

Though she is small in stature, she’s made a massive impact on this planet. Because she truly leads with love in everything she does.