Lek is the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation (SEF) based in Thailand. She is physically a small woman – but has a huge loving and kind heart! Her name means Tiny. Lek was born in Thailand in 1961 where she grew up in a village surrounded by many animals including dogs, pigs, and elephants. While a child she learned to love animals and respect them. But when she turned 16, she saw that elephants in the area were often being mistreated or abused by people or companies that owned them. When she saw this, it instilled a fierce desire in her to make a difference to save elephants from this continuous abuse. Lek has devoted her life to saving elephants.
Her work has included rescuing working elephants by investigating their industries, forming relationships with owners, educating tourists, and since 1996, providing a refuge to over 200 rescued elephants in a sanctuary she established known as the Elephant Nature Park. Many of the elephants have the wounds of war for an elephant that has been in captivity for so many years and mistreated. Some of the elephants come blind, lame, or emotionally traumatized. The elephants in time become “elephants again” and get to enjoy their new home. One of the successful areas that Lek has focused on is to work with the tourism industry to make them recognize that elephants should be elephants and not ridden and mistreated. This approach is transforming the industry into a force of good for the environment, animals and the people who work there. Many of the owners are changing their industry to sanctuaries for the elephants versus riding facilities.
Lek is an amazing woman – not only saves elephants but she also rescues buffalo, pigs, cows, cats, and over 400 dogs from the dog meat trade or the streets.
Lek is known as the elephant whisperer.
She is also the lead in the movie called, Love and Banana’s which tells the story of Noi Na who has been in chains her entire life and has worked for the last 30 years giving elephant rides to tourists.
Lek also recently participated in helping Cher and others to save Kavaan the Loneliest Elephant from a facility in Pakistan. This elephant now resides in one of the sanctuaries that Lek has co-founded.
Q: At what age did you realize you wanted to save animals? Was there a particular situation that made you so passionate about what you are doing?
As a young girl of about 16 years old, Lek heard screaming in the jungle and went to see what was making the noise. She saw an elephant being abused and stabbed by a mahout (definition: A mahout is a person who works with, rides, and tends an elephant). Each elephant has 3 mahouts. She saw one of the mahouts jabbing the elephant with a knife and a sharp tool over and over again. As she looked on in shock she saw the elephant looking at her as he was screaming. Lek said, “His voice cut deep into her heart – and she was shocked with the cruelty in front of her.” She stood and looked into his eyes – and saw an expression in his eyes showing anger, hopelessness, fear and confusion. Lek walked to the mahout and asked him, “why are you doing this to the elephant?” He said he was working. She left but, saw this picture of the elephant screaming and it haunted her like a shadow. She had to close her ears because she could hear him always crying out. After this – she knew she had to do something to make a difference.
Q: Are you ever afraid around the elephants you are working with?
Lek said, “it’s different with different situations.” She said, “if she does not know the elephants she does not get close by – because she does not know if they have been beaten or hurt by man.” But the elephants that are at her sanctuary she trusts, because she has worked with these elephants, and she knows them – and they love and trust her because of the love and care they are shown. They are like her family. Most of the elephants Lek has at the sanctuaries have been abused – and when the elephants first arrive it takes time for Lek and her support team to gain the elephant’s trust.
Q: After seeing what humankind has done to wildlife, do you ever lose hope in mankind?
Lek says she can’t lose her hope. In her country, the woman is considered the back leg of the elephant – but women are important. Anytime we lose hope we can’t do anything. She lost family, and friends because she speaks for animals and elephants.
Lek says she has a voice – and she will be the voice for the elephants despite all the challenges. This is our journey, and we cannot let hate win – her philosophy of working with elephants is to forget herself and just move forward to save elephants. We are human – but what is our goal and priority – elephants in the hand of the people. We must do a better job.
Hear Lek’s voice here as she answers the question herself.
Q. Writing a children’s book together. Do you have a particular story in mind?
Lek says, “I have so many elephant stories. Many, many, many, many. Maybe we do Pyi Mai and her mother Kham Moon? When she became a mother – it was her best job.”
Kham Moon was an elephant that cycled for circuses. When they found out she was pregnant when she was at the circus they decided to rescue her. Thanks to a woman from France who helped financially to to save her. She is now happy with her baby at the Elephant Sanctuary.
Q: What can we learn from Elephants?
When an elephant loves each other – they have a strong bond that is unconditional and can never break. When elephants adopt each other – it’s like a nanny that adopts a child. The nanny elephant and mother completely love the baby. There is a number one nanny elephant that takes care of the baby.
Elephants are polite and good. The longer the elephants know each other the more polite they are with each other versus how people treat each other.
The elephants are her energy. The love energy is the best on earth.
Q: What can we do to help with Elephants?
Helping them to voice and raise awareness – social media – or any platform to raise awareness in the school for young children. They are the future of the environment and habitat and nature.
They need our voice to help and direct the younger generation to help children understand to learn about kindness and love and to see our world and protect it and its animals.
Additional Information: Effects of COVID on Elephants in Thailand
During COVID approximately 3,500 elephants across 260 tourist camps in Thailand have been impacted by the lack of tourism in the area. These elephants were used to entertain tourists with riding and circus activities. During COVID, these animals began to starve and not have the sustenance they needed. So, Save Elephant Foundation came in and began working with multiple groups to help the tourist camps feed the elephants. This was done by implementing an emergency “elephant food bank program” by way of leasing lands to grow food for the elephants. This has been very successful. It has allowed elephants to be fed rather than starve. SEF also started an elephant foster program, upskilling people working with elephants to improve their income during this crisis, and taking elephants in to their sanctuaries as they can to save them. What an amazing job they are doing. Go to www.saveelephant.org to support them in such a wonderful endeavor!