The elephant boy of Te Awamutu

01:07, Dec 31 2013

Jack Lanting is pretty chuffed when he's told he's been selected as a finalist for the Waikato Times Young Person of the Year award.

"That's cool," he says. He's excited, and a bit overwhelmed that his love and concern for elephants in Thailand has come to such public attention.

Jack Lanting, 12, from Te Awamutu, is a young lad with a gritty determination, a big heart, and a big mission to save badly treated elephants in the Southeast Asian country he's come to know and love.

The story of Jack and Kwan Jai was first told in the Waikato Times last year, explaining how on a family holiday in Thailand, when he was only 8, Jack had been moved by the plight of elephants being ill-treated in tourism, logging and other industries.

Jack decided he'd like to provide a better life for one of them. His local community got in behind his work, and in a phenomenal effort, he raised $20,000. In November 2010, he returned to Thailand with his mum Viv and bought a worn-out, injured, former trekking and logging elephant, aged in her 70s.

He paid $15,000 to her owner, and the rest was spent on a food- shredder and upkeep. Jack named his elephant Kwan Jai, Thai for "beloved", and she was very much loved by him.


He donated her to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, a rescue and rehabilitation centre founded in 1996 by Thai woman Lek Chailert. Most of the elephants at Chailert's park are handicapped or in poor shape after years of ill-treatment.

Chailert's foundation estimates there are more than 2000 domestic elephants working in the Thai tourist industry, and says these animals face a bleak future. Babies in trekking and tourism have a low survival rate, and elephants in tourist camps are not reproducing at a sustainable rate.

The foundation aims to save the Asian elephant from extinction and give domesticated elephants a life worth living by preserving habitat and increasing public awareness on humane treatment practices.

Jack says he's seen "massive differences" between distressed, swaying elephants working at markets or circuses and similar in Thailand, and those at the park, where they were "just walking around, having fun. They looked much happier. They weren't swaying."

Jack has seen elephants that were bleeding and squeaking because they were hurt and frightened, and when they're not working he's noticed they've been tethered with very short chains and left in the sun without water and food. Many have scars on their heads, ears and legs from the hooks being used on them, and from chains cutting into their legs.

Jack's precious elephant Kwan Jai thrived on her new freedom. He wasn't frightened in the presence of such a big animal, she was always very mindful of him. The pair spent a lot of time together during Jack's visits to the park, and he travelled back there to support Kwan Jai and help care for her when she died in March this year.

Kwan Jai may be gone, but she is not forgotten, and Jack's work goes on. He is now fundraising to rescue another elephant, sharing the cost this time with Auckland schoolteacher Tracey Hand, who is similarly inspired.

They each need $8000, and Jack is well on his way, with about $2500 in the kitty. Some of this money has come from recent donations by Waikato Times readers who responded to a story earlier this month about Jack, and the death of Kwan Jai.

Jack's got plenty of things coming up. Next year, he plans to run a fundraising darts tournament in Hamilton.

"We want to make it the biggest darts tournament ever, and get into the Guinness Book of World Records."

Family friend George London will help him with this.

He and his mum are also looking at holding a dinner attended by celebrity chefs, where diners can bid to have one of the chefs join them at their table for the meal.

Jack has just finished school at St Patrick's in Te Awamutu, next year he'll attend St John's College in Hamilton. He wants to make elephants his life's work, and has a career as an elephant vet firmly in his future.

He's learning the Thai language, and his mother would one day like to run their own elephant sanctuary.

What does Jack like most about elephants? "Their intelligence. They are smart, funny, gentle but big. So many things."

One last, but most important thing: "The reason I do what I do is because there are already so many hurting elephants. I want to save them."