The elephant whisperer: A haven for mistreated animals

They are scarred by years of abuse. Their forest domain has shrunk, and their numbers along with it. But one woman has taken on the task of protecting the animals Thailand once held sacred

Lek flings slices of sweet white bread into the maw of a frisky five-year-old male elephant she calls Hope, whom she has hand-reared from babyhood. Hope loudly kisses her cheeks and lips with his trunk.

In the afternoon, she will romp with the whole herd as they take their river-baths and talcum off with dust. A while back, Lek had broken ribs after a training session with Hope got unruly and he stabbed her with his tusks. But all is forgiven now, and she adamantly refuses to use a metal hook to restrain him.

A flimsy bamboo hut on stilts sways alarmingly as two dozen unfettered elephants, their hides scarred by years of abuse, logging in Thailand's jungles, jostle for a luncheon buffet of bananas stalks, turnips and pumpkins spread out on Lek's front porch.

Young Buddhist monks in saffron robes hang back from the pachyderm pile-up before gingerly placing their morsels into the elephants' grip. One city boy unwittingly shoves a cucumber up the nostril of a placid middle-aged tusker, who snuffles it out and uses his trunk to bat it with casual dexterity against his back molars.

Known to everyone as Lek, or "Tiny", Sangduen Chailert is a diminutive Hill Tribe woman with mammoth plans to look after her country's declining population of domesticated elephants. Her forthright challenges to elephant owners to behave responsibly have made her something of an endangered species herself: death threats are common when she is out on the road inspecting injured or orphaned animals.

Lek averages just four hours sleep a night, in a hammock, surrounded by 35 neutered feral dogs who warn of any strangers' approach. She is up against centuries of rural Asian tradition because she insists elephants should no longer be subjected to phajaan. This term, which translates literally as "crush", is an understatement for a week of elephant abuse and torture. Heated irons and sharpened metal spikes are jabbed continuously into roped juveniles during their first separation from their mothers.

The process is designed to wean them and break their spirit so they can become beasts of burden. Lek has documented scores of these brutal sessions, during which half of the animals die. "Of the survivors, about half will go mad," she says. "This brutality can make them aggressive and dangerous. I do not believe elephants need to taste pain to learn how to listen." About 100 elephant trainers are killed every year by their charges.

Lek's dream is to release working elephants back to the forest, and she has assembled 25 abused or neglected creatures, ranging in age from six months to 85 years, to test her theories of rehabilitation in two wooded refuges north of Chiang Mai.

The granddaughter of a Khamu shaman and healer, Lek has been more vilified than lauded during almost a decade of conservation work that has disclosed widespread mistreatment of elephants, the animal Thais hold most sacred.

She took the brunt of the local backlash after the radical animal rights group Peta (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) used some of her footage of savage training sessions and called for international sanctions against Thailand until phajaan was eliminated. Lek was branded a traitor and a crank, and had to go into hiding. Even her family disowned her. Night raiders injected her favourite baby elephant with arsenic and killed it almost instantly.

"I won't tell people to boycott elephant safaris, as long as the animals are well treated," she says. Lek points at infected pressure sores along the spines of two elderly elephants who used to have to wear metal chairs to give tourists rides in comfort. The massive neck muscles are better suited to bearing weight than their curved spines.

Now 44, Lek has won world renown for her gentle training methods and was selected by Time magazine as a "hero of Asia". Her two sanctuaries cover 955 acres beside a river bank 48km north of Chiang Mai, near the Burma border. They are an unlikely mix of jungle retirement home, rehab centre, herbal clinic and orphanage for mistreated jumbos. The domestic Asian elephant is classified as livestock, so does not merit much government protection, although the population is under threat.

For the great beasts that buttressed Thailand as organic tanks during warfare and powerful bulldozers during peacetime, Lek has emerged as a champion, as their forest terrain continues to diminish. Historically, some 100,000 elephants roamed Siam; but in Thailand today, only 1,600 domestic elephants are believed to remain, with 500 wild ones in national forests.

Thailand's official ban on logging in 1989, a belated response to climate change, put most timber-hauling elephants out of a job overnight. Owners sent their redundant animals into the concrete jungle to beg for their suppers, and a city circuit for elephants has evolved around the tourist hot-spots. Each beast eats 10 per cent of its body weight every day, and the price for so much fodder is formidable.

Lek was disturbed by the sight of elephants in Bangkok, weaving through eight lanes of traffic, posing for photographs and gobbling tourist-bought goodies, although the law bars them at the city limits. "It makes me so sad," says Lek. "No elephant can hear properly in a city, and the smog affects vision. For creatures who feel vibrations through their feet, city traffic is terrifying. And I hate it when drunks force them to drink beer. It is an affront to their dignity."

Officially, all Thai elephants are prohibited from the highways, obstructing the flow of traffic, or fouling the roads. (Their urine can scour away paint within minutes.) At age 61, working elephants must, by law, be set loose in the forest for mandatory retirement, but bogus elephant birth certificates have become big business, especially since legislation to protect wild elephants makes it prudent to have convincing identification papers when making a sale. A healthy elephant can cost 500,000 Baht (£6,900).

On a typical night cadging handouts outside Bangkok's karaoke bars and massage parlours, an elephant can clear £50 for its owner. But eating roadside leaves coated with exhaust car fumes can induce an severe bellyache, so passers-by are urged to treat the creatures to 50p packets of vegetables or sugar cane sold by their handlers. Baby elephants attract the most admirers and are nimble at splashing through sewage culverts to dodge the law enforcers. Older elephants, senses dulled by the city, often are less agile.

The largest animal recovering at Lek's Elephant Nature Park is Max, who measures 11ft tall at the shoulder. The former logging elephant was the victim of a freak traffic accident which left him looking "like some kind of Frankenstein," Lek recalls. While the elephant was trudging along a southern highway after completing his nightclub begging rounds, an 18-wheel truck mowed him down. Max was felled and dragged 15ft. Ironically, the hit-and-run vehicle on the superhighway was an illicit logging truck, travelling without lights to evade the authorities who would shake the drivers down for bribes.

Karl Cullen, a volunteer keeper from Dublin, says: "If Max had not managed to get back on his feet within 72 hours, his internal organs would have been crushed by their own weight. A family bought him for a prestige pet to keep in their back garden."

But Max failed to thrive. His prolonged and painful recovery seemed to dull his appetite. "He was a bag of skin and bones when he got here and could barely move, but he is incredibly strong now," Cullen adds. When Max's facial wounds are cleaned each day, the big animal still winces, and sometimes puts his trunk into his mouth for comfort, as if he is sucking his thumb.

Lilly is another recovering elephant. Records show she was born in 1955, and she is an ex-speed freak. Her former owners had not been content with the money she brought in from working at a trekking park, and made her moonlight at a second job. Her food was laced with methamphetamines and Lilly was put to work by night hauling illegally felled teak logs.

As she built up a tolerance for the drug, the dose had to be increased, and one day after so many sleepless nights, Lilly had a breakdown. She would stand motionless and stopped grazing. Her saliva could not be controlled, so Lek was summoned to the rescue.

Jokia, a three-ton blind elephant, is another unlikely survivor. She can negotiate her own way to the river and back, and has been adopted by a sympathetic female elephant who gives her pointers through rumblings and trumpetings, squeaks and ultrasonic vibrations. A mahout's badly aimed slingshot put Jokia's left eye out, and her owner blinded the remaining one with an arrow in a fit of pique after the sulking elephant broke his arm.

Dozens of eco-tourists and volunteers are drawn to Lek's Elephant Nature Park every day during the dry season. They pay to stay in simple huts and rub oil into chafed skin, chop up banana-tree stalks or pace behind the pachyderms, picking up dung droppings the size of bowling balls. Those can be mulched and made into paper.

Susan Dymond, from London, says: "Bathing with the baby elephants was incredible. Their ears are so warm and leathery. And watching them scratch themselves on the posts is comical."

Now that harassment by officials has begun to level off after international recognition, Lek is keen to educate Thais about the elephants' plight. The abbot from the local temple left her park in tears, ashamed he had once enjoyed elephant shows where the creatures play harmonicas, rear up on hind legs to pose in bikinis, or paint murals with brushes clamped in their trunks.

"My message is so simple," Lek says, fending off more smooches from the young elephant who cracked her ribs. "Love can heal."

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