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Saengduean ‘Lek’ Chailert, Thailand’s Elephant Warrior

Saengduean Lek Chailert with elephants.

Ecoflix, the world’s first nonprofit streaming platform, enables subscribers to pick the animal org they want their entire subscription fee to go to! Examples include Mercy for Animals, Wildlife SOS, Lek’s Elephant Nature Park and so on.

Who is this “Lek” person?

For those who are aware of the critical dangers facing wild and captive animals, few individuals in our lifetimes have done so much, so courageously, and yet remain so selfless, literally dedicated to others.

So, who is this “Lek” person anyway? She is the most famous, remarkable, beloved, unknown, and often unsung hero on the planet. Lek is actually her nickname from birth.  Born in the tiny Hill Tribe of Thailand, without running water, Saengduean Chailert was so small that her mother did not think she would survive. Lek means “tiny” in Thai, and the moniker stayed with her for 62 years.

Born into a family who crush the spirit of baby elephants — quite purposefully preventing them from even looking to their own mothers for help.  The goal is to force them to obey human commands, often bereft of any humanity. Her father, indeed, her entire nuclear family “broke” elephants to train them for “trekking” or riding, often used to perform grueling tasks in the logging industry, or carry entire families of uninformed tourists, wholly unaware of the (hidden) extreme cruelty involved.

Rebelling against the “family business,” Lek soon became a vocal opponent of trekking, the number one tourist attraction in Thailand — and the sole means by which her father put food on the table. She soon decided to take the exact opposite side of the trekking industry, denouncing it at every opportunity.  Energized by her dedication to protecting these voiceless giants, Lek decided to rescue broken, distressed, and almost always dangerous elephants. Most had killed an unsuspecting trainer or owner when the opportunity arose.  

But instinctively, they knew Lek loved them…and that is her superpower: where her magic resides.

Saengduean Lek Chailert and elephant.
Saengduean Lek Chailert with one of her elephants | Courtesy

Often called an elephant whisperer, this diminutive hero denies the obvious. She insists that anyone can do what she does, if they love the elephant, it will understand that they mean it no harm. From a safe vantage point, one can wonder. But sitting with her under a doting herd of elephants (who would give their life for hers) it is easy to see what she does not. She has a heart the size of Chicago; the courage of a pride of lions; and fortitude that if harnessed, could power entire countries.

Lek went through phases that almost no other human has ever experienced. Rejected by her own family, and later her country, she was targeted for assassination. Despite these very real threats, she simply kept her schedule private and seldom shared her phone number. After forming her beloved “Elephant Nature Park” in Chiang Mai, she began rescuing more and more and more elephants. Soon she was secretly known but publicly considered a phantom.

On one occasion, armed militia arrived at ENP, loaded with military weapons. Recognizing the danger to her elephants, she did what anyone would do…she went out in front of the gates to her sanctuary to meet them, unarmed. She was promptly told by the men who were pointing their weapons at her, that they had come to take her elephants. She said flatly: “You will have to kill me first.”  

By this point, tourists with cameras were anxiously watching and filming. Realizing that they could not simply shoot her, as they likely had orders to do, the armed men begrudgingly backed off and left the grounds.

And her willingness to fight above her weight class continued. Her selfless efforts to save elephants from trauma of any and every imaginable kind has never slowed down. To this day, many decades later, she insists upon leading almost every rescue, personally. Riding in an open-air truck with a frightened, often angry elephant, she quickly calms them with her magical powers and soothes them endlessly until they arrive home, safely, at ENP. During Covid, with the financial support of her loyal patrons, she rescued hundreds of elephants, left to die of thirst or starvation, because no tourists were able to travel and pay for their food and care. Lek stepped in and saved most of them. 

Lek has never recognized unreasonable rules or unnecessary limitations. The Thai parliament and others in very high places had no choice but to take notice of her impact on the tourism industry. Efforts to shut her down failed, time and again. Eventually, even her human opposition succumbed to her simple logic and unearthly fortitude in the face of hopeless odds.  

Saengduean Lek Chailert and elephants.
Saengduean Lek Chailert and elephants | Courtesy

An unsung hero for most of her life, she has placed no stock in adoration or receiving credit. Her focus is never on herself. She receives donations from adoring fans around the world, hoping to help her, help elephants. And Lek does exactly that — refusing to spend any of the money on herself. Indeed, to this day, she wears local, handmade clothing, focusing all her effort and resources on animals in need.

Nor is she singularly focused on elephants. She has saved countless thousands of animals, helping almost every species found in Thailand. There are no animals she would not help or try to save. Perhaps the single best overview of the contours of her heart was revealed to me during a conversation we had decades ago. As a U.S.A. partner, trying my best to help with her work in Cambodia and Thailand, I had so much to learn. So, I often asked her questions. This one pertained to a common criticism I had heard about sanctuaries around the world, generally.

I said: “Lek, so many people judge sanctuaries in the same way they assess Zoos. They look at the statistics regarding how long the animals live in the facility at issue. So, given that reality, are you ever worried about rescuing old, very sick elephants, knowing they won’t live very long in your care?”

Her answer made me ashamed of myself, nearly bringing me to tears. In a quiet, calm voice, probably doing everything possible not to berate me for my stupidity, she said: “No David. These elephants have been tortured, beaten, abused, and discarded. People have failed to give them any peace, much less any dignity. It will not matter to me if they live one week or one day in our sanctuary. I want to do everything I can for them, to make sure they know that they are surrounded by people who love them. People who value them. Then, at least they can die in peace, in a loving environment. I want to give them that. I don’t care what anyone says about me.”

This is Lek. This is the marvelous woman with whom I have been honored to be able to cherish, support, work with, and always learn from, for over twenty-two years. And I am far from the only person who recognizes her many remarkable gifts. Indeed, only a few years after her life was being threatened in her home country, she was “discovered” by Hillary Clinton and asked to speak at the United Nations.  

Soon, Time Magazine “discovered” her, making her their “Thai Women of the Year” recipient. And the recognition continued. She was eventually elected to the Thai Parliament, where she fights every single day for the rights of animals. Most recently, President Macron of France gave her the coveted “Legion of Honor” award, seldom given to anyone outside of France.

And yet, those of us blessed to know her and work with her from time to time, see no real change in her behavior or her outlook. Her dedication to her beloved elephants has never wavered and her passion for all living things remains unchanged.  

Speaking to her one day at our joint sanctuary in Cambodia, a gorgeous butterfly circled and then gently landed on her shoulder. It continued to fan its wings as it remained in place. I had only one thought. Lek, I said: “Even the butterflies know…”

About the author:

David Casselman is a retired lawyer living in Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS).  He is passionate about animals, having provided pro bono legal work for animal causes for over 40 years, including trying to save Billy, the lone bull elephant in the Los Angeles Zoo and helping to rescue Kavaan, a similarly aged bull elephant from a Pakistan Zoo. David is also the founder and CEO of Ecoflix, the first nonprofit global media company, offering a commercial-free global streaming channel dedicated to saving animals and the planet.

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