Trunk call of triumph
There's a certain irony in the treatment of elephants in Thailand. While the magical creature is regarded as sacred and has a special place with Thai royalty, elephants have for centuries been abused by their Thai owners.
They're regularly used for logging and other intense labour in conditions that almost kill them, and dragged down busy highways in the name of tourism.
But the tide is changing for elephants and nothing about it has been easy for the people who have taken on the role of removing them from the harsh surroundings many live in.
One woman in particular has staked much to give elephants a new life. And despite the constant challenges and threats she says she receives from powers as high as the Thai government itself, she says she will carry on until she dies.
Lek Chailert is tiny in stature, but what she lacks in size, she makes up for with a huge heart. Seeing her being playfully thrown around by the trunks of her elephants is frightening at first, until you realise how much love and respect they have for this woman who saved them from the miserable existences of their previous lives.
If ever there was an elephant whisperer, she is Lek.
The 51-year-old was honoured as one of six "Women Heroes of Global Conservation" in 2010 by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and named one of Time magazine's "Heroes of Asia" in 2005.
Take the example of 70-year-old elephant Mae Perm, who was rescued almost 20 years ago after a family found her in the forest dying from a life of being poorly treated in the logging industry.
The family didn't know how to look after her and Mae Perm was growing increasingly frail, so they called on a woman they had heard of who saved elephants.
That was Lek, and Mae Perm was transported to the Elephant Nature Park, which lies in the jungle on the outskirts of Chiang Mai and is today a sanctuary for 39 elephants and 500 dogs.
The land was donated to Lek and has become a place where tourists can interact with elephants without exploiting them.
In the last century the Thai elephant population declined by 95 per cent. In order to turn that around and save the elephants, "you have to be brave", says Lek. "It's not easy."
She first came across elephants when she was growing up in a small village. She recalls when she was a student at a Catholic school, going trekking with the missionaries and hearing an elephant screaming - a sound she's never got out of her head.
When she asked an elephant's mahout (trainer) when the animals got to sleep, he replied, "when they fall down".
"They worked them until they died," Lek says now.
Lek decided then that her destiny was to rescue elephants.
"I started to go the mountains to see the elephants. The more I saw the more my heart would break.
"Elephants aren't born to serve us in this way."
With the help of the likes of Intrepid Travel - a company with strong beliefs around responsible travel - Lek's efforts have come to wider attention.
While those who visit the Elephant Nature Park are only a small percentage of tourists seeking a Thai elephant experience - most go to the bigger tourism parks where elephant entertainment and rides exist - Lek says you have to begin somewhere.
"Education is what will fix it. You have to set a good example," she says.
Companies like Intrepid which have stopped taking tourists to some parks are "very brave".
"They're turning down money because of it . . . I can see the light of the future in that. I see it in big companies and hope that one day the elephants will live in better conditions," she says.
The priority now is more land. There is only room for one more elephant at the park but there are hundreds on the list to be rescued.
Lek says she will work with elephants "until the end of my days".
"I believe love can tame. I got told I would get killed by elephants, but they're just like us if you're kind and respectful of them."
For the future she wants to reserve the existing Elephant Nature Park for the old, lame and sick elephants.
She is already scouting out new land for expansion, for the healthy elephants she plans to continue to bring here and for the young ones to run around.
Intrepid Travel co-founder Geoff Manchester explains how he commissioned a 12-month study with elephant expert Jan Schmidt-Burbach of World Animal Protection about four years ago, to understand the negative impact of elephant entertainment.
"When we made the decision to stop using elephant entertainment tourism we gradually reduced it over about three years until this year, when it was cut completely from our tourism packages," Manchester says.
"Our travellers love to interact with elephants and there are two establishments that treat elephants in a really humane way.
"Elephants that have been injured by logging, landmines or been treated badly by their owners are taken to [the Elephant Nature Park] - an establishment that treats elephants really well. There you can learn about elephants, walk with them, feed them and bathe them."
The other option is the MaeYao National Reserve of Lampang, also in northern Thailand, at a place called Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE).
FAE was set up 20 years ago and includes a rehabilitation hospital - the first of its kind that has prosthetics for elephants who lost limbs to landmines. In 2008 baby elephant Mosha received the world's first elephant prosthetic at FAE and two years later Motala followed suit.
World Animal Protection is about to launch a follow-up study identifying who demands elephant entertainment when they're travelling and where they come from.
Manchester says there are wider issues around changing the way elephants are treated and it needs to be done gradually, otherwise travellers will just go elsewhere.
"If Intrepid had stopped elephant entertainment tourism immediately, no-one would have noticed. We're too insignificant in the market," he says.
However, the company had surveyed travellers, expecting elephant riding to be high on their intended experiences, and was surprised when it wasn't.
"We took it out of some of the trips and made it optional in others. Gradually we took it out, until January this year when we stopped it," he says.
Schmidt-Burbach says that there are some 1644 elephants being used for tourism in 108 camps in Thailand, in varying conditions.
World Animal Protection is serious about lifting the standard of care for Thailand's elephants, and ultimately that means protecting elephants in the wild and keeping them out of camps, he says.
"While reducing the demand for elephant entertainment is a good thing, there still need to be solutions developed for those already in the system that simply can't return to the wild.
"The solution is not as simple as rescuing an elephant and then throwing it back in the wild."
Travel organisations pulling out of elephant entertainment is a good starting point and educating tourists will go even further, Schmidt-Burbach says.
"Then we need to educate elephant owners how to treat them better."
Manchester says that the elephant tourism industry is run by "a lot of powerful people" which makes getting the government involved tricky.
But five years ago there was a shift in attitude when elephants were banned from the streets of Bangkok.
That gives those pushing for change the hope that Thailand's elephants in the future may all enjoy the freedom of the wild.
Thai elephant rescuer Lek Chailert's advice on getting an elephant experience:
- If you visit an elephant park, check out the animals. Is the elephant skinny, pregnant or old? If you ride an elephant in that condition it does harm.
- Take a sustainable approach to your visit. Don't arrive intending to simply take what you want and then leave.
- Educate others and spread the word.
Jan Schmidt-Burbach's advice:
- If you love elephants remember they're wild animals so try to see them in the wild.
- Choose responsible travel organisations like Intrepid.
- Visit an elephant park that has wild animals for the right reason, like rehabilitation hospitals.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel