When Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert was five her grandfather, a traditional healer in their small hill tribe village in northern Thailand, was given a baby elephant in payment for saving a man’s life. Lek and the pachyderm soon became good pals, and this bond ignited a lifetime passion for elephants and their welfare.
Some forty years – and many rescued elephants – later, Lek has opened a new haven for endangered elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia in Phnom Kulen National Park, about an hour north of Siem Reap.
The rescue centre is part of the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, and will be open to the general public later this year.
Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia has already received its first new arrivals – two captive, working female elephants that were rescued from a life of logging on January 16 in Ratanakiri and taken on a 16 hour journey across Cambodia, including a Mekong river boat crossing.
Lek says many villagers seemed fascinated by the creatures and watched as they were led down the road. The two females, Kam Lin and Arun Rhea, are now happily settled and starting to rehabilitate in the sanctuary. Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia expects to house up to 10 elephants in the first couple of years, more if the help is needed.
The sanctuary is now accepting volunteers to help with reforestation, tree registry, land mapping, construction and basic elephant care. The sanctuary has a staff of 40 and spans 25,000 acres of forest.
Lek is the founder of Save Elephant Foundation, the umbrella company under which Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia was created. She says the idea behind the centre at Phnom Kulen is to be a place where elephants can once again be reunited with the forest, and where locals can be educated on elephant and forest conservation.
“Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary will not only help wild animals, including the release of elephants into freedom, but will also work with the local community,” Lek says. “It is our aim to work with the people to educate them on the environment and raise awareness to help them protect their own home and habitat.”
Lek founded the Chiang Mai-based Elephant Nature Park, sister sanctuary of Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia, in 1995 as a refuge for captive elephants. These creatures were victims of the illegal logging trade, trekking, street begging and forced breeding. Now 30 elephants live peacefully at the park.
Lek says there are many elephants in need in Cambodia;
“We have connections to people who work with elephants, and we are constantly learning about what happens,” she says. “Many elephants are overworked and in need of veterinary care that is not available in the villages.
“We also have a team doing research about elephant conditions and trying to get an estimate of how many are left in the wild and how many are domestic. “Unfortunately, because of logging and the destruction of the jungle, many wild elephants are losing their habitat and either dying because of lack of food or being captured.”
Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia aims to provide care for the elephants and, where possible, release them back into the wild.
“With captive elephants, it takes a lot of time to get them to the position to be released back into the wild,” says Lek. “We rescue elephants that are in poor condition and if they are healthy enough to survive on their own in the jungle, we have every intention to release them back into their natural habitat.”
Lek has garnered quite a reputation for herself over the years with her bid to save the Asian elephant. She has featured in documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic and Animal Planet, as well as winning several honorary awards. In 2005 she was named as one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of Asia” for her conservation work, and in 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited Lek to Washington DC to be honored as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.
For more information about Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia or if you would like to volunteer, please visit: http://www.saveelephant.org/elephant_sanctuary_cambodia.html