By Fran Silverman
While it may seem like the thrill and vacation of a lifetime to sit atop a nine-foot tall, four-ton pachyderm while trekking through the jungles of Thailand, it is anything but thrilling to them.
The fact is, wild elephants need to be trained to be ridden in the trekking tourism industry or to be used like machines in the logging industries in Asia, and that process is abusive.
After witnessing the abuse of Asian elephants in Thailand, Sangdeun Lek Chailert decided to forego her childhood dream of becoming a teacher or doctor and dedicate her life to protecting them.
Breaking with the traditions of the small village of Baan Lao, Thailand, where she grew up, Chailert advocates for ending abuse in the entertainment, trekking and logging industries in Asia through educational outreach and ecotourism.
She founded the Save Elephant Foundation, a non–profit organization dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs and educational ecotourism operations. One of her projects is the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary that is home to more than 35 elephants, most of whom have been saved from the tourist and illegal logging industries. The park offers visitors the opportunity to engage with the animals—guests can feed the elephants and bathe them.
Chailert was honored by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for championing projects to assist in the survival of the endangered species when she was named one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.
The Ford Foundation has also named her a Hero of the Planet. Now Chailert and her work are the subject of a new documentary created by actor/director Ashley Bell, who has long been an activist for animal rights. (Her father is a member of Friends of Animals.)
The documentary, “Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story,” captures Chailert’s and Bell’s 480-mile trip across Thailand to rescue Noi Na, a 70-year old partially blind trekking elephant who was released into Chailert’s care by her owner.
“One thing about ‘Love and Bananas’ is that it’s a story of love,” Chailert said. “Noi Na, she took so much abuse by people in her life, serving people for seven decades. But then when she came and stayed with us she opened her heart and she accepted our love and paid the love back. This is so beautiful.”
Bell said she doesn’t want people to feel paralyzed by an issue that’s hard to endure because of the cruelty involved. “I want people to feel like if they do something—that matters.” Action Line interviewed these inspiring women about the film and why it is crucial to avoid any travelling excursions that exploit the Asian elephant population, which has dwindled to between 30,000-50,000. (Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.)
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH TRYING TO CHANGE HEARTS AND MINDS ABOUT ELEPHANTS?
LEK: Elephants are a symbol of our country, but their lives are not getting better. I had a chance to visit elephants working in the logging industry. I couldn’t believe how elephants got abused. I asked the owner, ‘Why do you still use very old elephants like this to work, or a sick elephant, broken-leg elephant, why do they still have to work?’ And the owners would often say when they die, when they are falling down, when they can’t stand anymore, then they stop working. This really shocked me.
IN WHAT WAYS DO ELEPHANTS STILL SURPRISE YOU?
LEK: One thing I learned about elephants, they have the best love in the world that humans don’t have. You know, when elephants meet each other, they come from different locations, different histories, different times, different places, but when we bring them to our project they see friends, and some invite them into their heart. When a friend arrives, they adopt each other. Their love between each other is unconditional. Even an old grandmother will adopt an orphan baby and will protect that baby even though it’s not their own blood.
WHAT IS ECOTOURISM AND HOW IS IT MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
LEK: People love elephants and they want to buy an elephant painting. People love elephants and they want to touch them and they want to kiss the elephant; they want to ride an elephant; they want to be close to them. But it’s not ethical because it disturbs the elephant. Now so many trekking camps (that have converted to sanctuaries) are making sure no more elephants suffer. (Visitors) can now walk with elephants in the jungle; they can watch elephants swimming in the river and they can see elephants rolling down in the mud, running in the jungle, eating and foraging, and tickling. This is ethical. And the money that comes from this in the 38 camps not only supports the elephants and the elephants’ families, but also supports local committees, women’s committees, children’s education. Everything goes to support ethical programs, and everyone is happy together.
WHAT THREE THINGS CAN PEOPLE IN THE U.S. DO RIGHT NOW TO HELP ASIAN AND AFRICAN ELEPHANT POPULATIONS?
ASHLEY: So, a big part of ‘Love and Bananas’ was launching an impact campaign with the film and you can go to loveandbananas.com to take action. Lek has always said the key to saving this species is education so we have sharable resources that you can share and tweet and post. Also, you can take a humane travel pledge saying that when you travel you won’t support exotic animals being used for entertainment. Also, we partnered with The Greater Good, which has raised $80,000 and 100 percent of those funds goes directly to Lek’s organization. If the film isn’t playing in a theater near you, you can go to loveandbananas.com and request a community screening and you can bring the movie to your school or university or organization or club.