In partnership with Rolex

Why women lead conservationists’ fight to protect endangered Asian elephants under threat from mankind

For decades human activities have diminished wildlife, but ‘elephant whisperer’ Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, founder of Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, and Krithi Karanth, chief conservation scientist at India’s Centre for Wildlife Studies, hope education will encourage change

September 10, 2020

The natural world appears to have been thriving since most of the Earth’s human population went into lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. While few viral images have been proved to be factually misleading, some of these tales of a revived nature and emboldened wildlife are in fact legitimate.

The United Kingdom reported a revival in wildlife species, from birds of prey and warblers to badgers, otters and even orcas, or killer whales. In the Chilean capital, Santiago, cougars were seen wandering in deserted neighbourhoods, while at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, pandas Ying Ying and Le Le finally mated – ending 10 years of failed attempts by zookeepers at the theme park.

Such sights are welcome news – particularly when mankind has been responsible for wiping out 60 per cent of the planet’s mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians since 1970, according to global conservation body WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018, compiled by 59 international scientists.

Human activities, including habitat loss and degradation, overfishing and overhunting, are among the biggest causes of this decline.

Animals are being wiped out by people
On average animal
populations are down
Vertebrate’s animal population %

Asian elephants – listed by WWF as endangered – once roamed across most of the Asian region, but are now restricted to wet forest and grassland areas in only 15 per cent of their former habitats. This is largely the result of development projects such as the construction of dams, roads and industrial complexes, plantations and the spread of human settlements.

With fewer than
Asian elephants left in South and Southeast Asia, they have been classified as ‘endangered’
More than half can be found in India, and fewer than 7,000 are in Thailand, with roughly half living in captivity

Conservationist Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, known simply as Lek, who has been dubbed the “elephant whisperer” because of her ability to connect with the animals, has made it her life’s work to protect and save the species in her home country of Thailand.

In 1996, she founded the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary and educational outreach centre for mistreated, injured and traumatised elephants rescued after being forced to work in the tourism and the illegal logging industries.

The elephants, many of which are left seriously malnourished and suffering from psychological and physical problems, including broken limbs, are nursed back to health and free to roam around the sprawling, 250-acre (100-hectare) park located in Mae Taeng valley, about 60km (38 miles) north of the city of Chiang Mai.

Animals that are critically endangered now include:
Sumatran elephant
Eastern lowland gorilla
Sunda tiger
Bornean orangutan
Source: WWF's Living Planet Report 2018

As a teenager Lek was haunted by the cries of a distressed elephant being forced to work in logging – banned by the Thai government since 1989 – while accompanying a group of missionaries to observe elephants in the jungle. From then on she vowed that saving elephants would be her mission.

“Although I had no money then, I knew I had to find a way to help them,” says Lek, 59, who is also a founder of the Save Elephant Foundation.

The Asian elephant is the largest land mammal on the Asian continent

After graduating from Chiang Mai University, she started work in a variety of jobs – all the while saving money to rescue one elephant at a time. She says it costs at least US$30,000 to rescue an elephant from its owner today.

“I’ve no [other] choice as there is no law in Thailand that allows the authorities to confiscate elephants, even if they are abused: I can’t just pick them up.”

Elephant Nature Park, flanked by mountains, is situated in an area of land bought by an American donor.

“Many elephants come to our park bruised, battered and in critical condition – some have lost their balance and can hardly walk; some are blind or cannot hear,” Lek says.

“Friends thought I was silly to buy them when they are about to die. But my only rule is: rescue elephants that need help.”

Although they are revered as a national symbol of Thailand, many of the country’s domesticated elephants are still made to serve the travel industry by performing tricks for tourists, such as playing soccer, painting, offering passenger rides on their backs, or used to beg for money while being led through busy city streets.

More than
years ago
elephants in Thailand were used to do …
tricks and beg for
money in city streets
the heavy lifting in
illegal logging activities

Early in their lives many elephants are subjected to a brutal ritual called phajaan, which means “crushing”, where the calves are separated from their mothers, then tied up in wooden cages and subjected to daily physical and psychological torture by being beaten and starved so that their spirits are broken.

Lek says that thankfully these cruel activities are not as common today as they were a decade ago.

“Now, many elephant camps are advertising how they don’t offer riding and circus shows, and that their mahouts [elephant caretakers] don’t use hooks and chains [on the elephants,” she says. “So things are definitely changing now, as people are becoming more aware about animal conservation.”

More than
50 %
of elephants in Thailand live in captivity, in camps or sanctuaries that rely on tourism for survival

Lek’s Elephant Nature Park is home to more than 80 elephants, 700 dogs – many of which were rescued after the heavy floods affecting Bangkok in 2011 – 800 cats and 98 buffaloes.

It raises funds mostly through sponsorship and tourism. Visitors can stay for a day or overnight and feed, walk beside and help bathe the elephants, or volunteer to help for up to two weeks.

With tourism levels slumping during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, the Elephant Nature Park – like similar holiday attractions around the world – found itself with no visitors, volunteers, or income to pay for its upkeep. Feeding an elephant can cost up to US$30 a day – more than three times Thailand’s minimum daily wage.

An elephant typically spends two-thirds of its day feeding and can consume more than
100 kg
of food a day

Yet Lek remained undeterred and even considered selling her car when the park’s financial situation grew dire. “Humans can always ask for help, but animals can’t do that, so we have to help them,” she says.

Her tireless conservation efforts over the past 24 years have led to her being named Time magazine’s “Hero of Asia” in 2005, while in 2010 she was invited to Washington by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the United States secretary of state, to be honoured as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.

Asian elephants are sociable, forming families of six to seven females that are led by the oldest female, the matriarch

However,  she admits that her work is far from done, and continues to educate both the local population and tourists about the plight of Asian elephants.

“Until every one of us understands that elephants should be respected and not be treated as our slaves, I will not rest – I will fight for them,” she says.

Solving India’s human-wildlife conflicts

India’s communities often clash with wildlife, including leopards, tigers and elephants, resulting in injuries and deaths on both sides and damage to animal habitats and property.

Photos: Rolex/Marc Latzel

Krithi Karanth, director and chief conservation scientist at the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bangalore, and an adjunct faculty member at Duke University in the US, and India’s National Centre for Biological Sciences, has been working hard to reduce these conflicts.

“Wild animals are not attuned to human boundaries … people and their livestock are often injured or killed, crops are destroyed and property damaged,” Karanth, a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate, says. “Communities may then exact revenge by killing the wild animals.”

Photos: Rolex/Marc Latzel
Photos: Rolex/Marc Latzel

She set up a toll-free telephone number for villagers to call for help in applying for compensation when they suffer losses, which has led to increased trust and reduced hostility towards wildlife in the affected communities.

Karanth is also running a conservation education programme involving 30,000 children in 500 schools in high-conflict areas.

“I think India is doing better now than it did 50 years ago,” she says. “We have technology and more public support for wildlife conservation.”

Editor's note: This article is part of "Explorers of tomorrow", a four-episode series featuring inspiring individuals who are working to resolve pressing global problems today.

Time is of the essence if we are to create a sustainable future. In partnership with Rolex and its Perpetual Planet Initiative, “Explorers of tomorrow” honours a group of dynamic, extraordinary people whose innovative projects are making the world a better place.

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