Thailand- the story of the past, present and future of the Asian elephant, a new age way of saving primary rainforest and a small gal named Lek. We have just left her Elephant Nature Park- where we were working with the elephants and this wonderful woman (height 4’9) named Lek- which coincidentally means “small one”. Her life-quest is to provide a sanctuary for elephants to live in a peaceful natural environment, teach the locals how to live in harmony with elephants and provide Vet care for ele’s around the country that otherwise would go untreated, the name for her Ele-Aid is the “Jumbo Express”.
Sitting on the bamboo porch overlooking a family of muddy red elephants grazing on long lush grass, a luminous rainbow perfectly arched above and the smell of lemongrass matched with ginger leaking from the cooking hut, I was reminded of that quote by Mother Teresa; “You can do no great things, only small things with great love…” and thought in Lek’s situation it should be changed to “You can do great things, even if you are small, if you have great love.”
“Vanessa, you ready?” a thick Thai accent called. “Your stomach feel better?” Lek was already in the back of the truck loaded down with bananas, baskets and strange bags filled with dry fish and sticky rice and something gray sliced up, I took that for our lunch. I nodded, not knowing if I felt better or not- but the waves of nausea hadn’t broke for at least an hour. I thought I was ready- anyhow it was just a little trek 2 and a half hours in thick humidity and tropical heat to a remote village in the high jungle mountains, bumpy car rides and rafting rapids for another 4 hours, what could be a better cure for a small bout of food poisoning? But the strong smell of overripe bananas was enough to get a rerun of my last night’s loo adventure. So here go’s the Jumbo express- and of course it started out on the worst muddy washed out roads, Lek and I bouncing around with a truckload of bananas in the back, splashed by mud and holding on for dear life to not get dumped out. The ride was only complicated by my ever rumbling stomach which was still little unhappy from last night’s
green (perhaps too green?) papaya salad and the looming black clouds in the distance. We finally reached the river, sans any serious damage or vomiting, and the view was magical! The put in for the rafts was a tiny thatch village split in two by the chocolate brown river and a swinging bridge. Several small boys were demonstrating their diving skills from it- double back flips and all! If I wasn’t feeling so off- i would have loved to launch off that bridge into the tempting cool water- but we had work to do. No; we didn’t have the luxury of heading downstream in a comfy water-tight rubber raft- instead it was time to break out the bamboo and make one!Hmmm- thank goodness we had a few expert hands- my raft building skills are not that well honed….
We finally headed down the churning chocolate river on our newly built rafts out of bamboo (and nothing else!) to raft 1 1/2 hrs down the river, crossing class 2 and 3 rapids on a bamboo raft! @#$@# (learned right and left in Thai quite well- as we had to push with bamboo rods off the rocks- Si is left, Kwa is right) to this tiny village on stilts deep in the jungle. A couple of Mahouts (the name of the an elephant wrangler) brought down three ele’s to meet us for de-worming and to treat an infected abscess.
These ele’s are pushed to work very hard here- and beat with hooks and chains- obedience by submission and fear is the OLD thai way- but Lek is the new “elephant” whisperer; she is trying to teach people that you can work together by LOVE- and she has proved this by buying 30 beaten and abused elephants and taught them to trust again; purely by love, not force– and her creatures are just that, giving her love back….So these Mahouts brought down their ele’s- and all three elephants have killed people this year; because they are beaten and scared and lash out. I cold see it in their eyes; so different from Lek’s elephants. These ones were scared and angry- but we whispered soothing tones and got ready to operate from a platform. Lek distracted the hurt one with bananas from below as I filled the syringes, while the vet jumped on his head to open the abscess. It went perfectly smoothly- and the vet gave all the extra meds to the Mahout… We filled bananas with 3 inch long pills and fed them to the ele’s to the delight of the Mahouts.
These creatures make their families living- and although they may not know how to treat them, they are eternally grateful for Lek and her Jumbo Express. It started raining violently as we pushed off on our bamboo rafts from the village- and it was getting late and we had 3 more hours down the river, but the full moon was rising, making the river seem like silver snake winding through the greenery. A little scary thinking we were going to still be on the river after dark; but the moon was full and bright, and everyone was happy from a long good days work. Darkness set in as we moved down the river, dodging rocks, led by the light of the moon and the sparkling shoreline filled with fireflies.
A most beautiful moment in my life, spent with a women who has dedicated her life and love to something she believes in.
But Leks work doesn’t end with hands on work with the elephants- in fact that is just the beginning. She took us down the red dirt road- leading a pack of 15 elephants on a daily walk to the jungle, where each tree was firmly tied in a saffron bow. She reached into her woven bag and me several long orange scarves, the robes of Buddist monks torn into strips.
Lek’s idea of saving individual trees using local Buddhist beliefs and karma, for the locals won’t cut down these tied trees fearing insults to jungle spirits that have been blessed now by the monks sacred robes. I secured my last ribbon around a small sapling, looking around at a forest of hallowed trees, 10,000 trees to be exact….(there most be a lot of naked monks running around somewhere I thought smiling.)
I felt a bit blessed myself- to be in this moment, surrounded by elephants feeding on what would be their natural forage, and the air filled with a sense of Lek’s will power to create a better world for them. And Lek’s determination is infectious, I felt a surge of purpose and strength as we rounded up the elephants and headed back to camp and the morning ele feed of 3 tons of fruits and veg. There is hope, and we can do something about the future of these animals, and here we were, proving it!
Lek’s dreams and realities are making a difference- The moral of the story- no matter how small you may be, and how large your dreams may be- never give up- for the love of the dream is all you need.
From a fellow elephant lover- Vanessa
The elephant, Thailand’s official national and royal symbol, holds a place of great prestige and reverence in Thai society. But the pressures of Thailand’s rapidly modernizing nation and developing economy have put the elephant in grave danger. Some estimates claim Thailand’s elephant population has fallen from almost 300,000 one hundred years ago to less than 5,000 today. And over half that population is DOMESTICATED eles -(only by human force, nothing changes genetically in the ele if they are required to work for humans). We need to protect the elephant habitat and help BOTH the wild and domesticated elephants of Thailand, if that majestic creature is to roam the jungles and not just be a memory or mythical art piece in the