Sangduen “Lek” Chailert was born in 1962 in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao, two hours north of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Her love affair with elephants began when her grandfather, a traditional healer, received a baby elephant as payment for saving a man’s life. Lek spent many hours with her new friend, named Tongkum (Golden One), and their relationship resulted in a passion that would shape the rest of her life.
With a love and respect for her country’s national symbol, and the knowledge that Asian elephants were endangered, Lek began advocating for the rights and welfare of these magnificent animals in Thailand (and now, also in Cambodia). In an industry steeped in tradition, advocating for positive change in the ways domestic and wild Asian elephants are treated has not been an easy battle. However, with hard work and determination, her voice is now internationally recognized. In addition to several documentaries produced by National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet and the BBC, Lek has also won many honorary awards.
Lek’s mission continues to affect others as her voice is heard throughout the world. Her story and voice have made an impact in the minds of all who give their lives to animal welfare and conservation. Lek’s work to save the Asian elephants continues to expand. She has formed the Save Elephant Foundation and a dedicated team works tirelessly by her side to protect the Asian elephant.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited Lek to Washington, D.C. in 2010 to honor her as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation, and Lek was named one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of Asia for her work in conservation in 2005 and the Ford Foundation’s “Hero of the Planet” in 2001.
Lek has earned two honorary degrees from Rajabaht Chiang Mai University – a PhD in Sustainability and Conservation and a PhD in Veterinary Science. Finally, the National Geographic documentary Vanishing Giants, which highlights Lek’s work with the Asian elephant, was recognized by the Humane Society of the United States with the Genesis Award in 2003.
Today, Lek continues to be at the forefront of elephant (and other animal rights) causes, raising international awareness and encouraging other countries in the region to follow her lead, as well as helping provide sustainable alternatives to local villages. At the same time, she maintains special relationships with the animals she rescues. Most days, she can be found at Elephant Nature Park spending time with the rescued herd. Visitors and volunteers to the park are welcome
Melissa Banigan Founder/Managing Editor Advice Project Media
Dear Thirteen-Year-Old Lek,
Being thirteen is like living in a confusing fantasy world. Today, you want to be a singer. Tomorrow, you might wish to be a teacher. Next week, who knows, maybe you’ll think about training to be a doctor. Any time you hear about a new profession, you want to try it out. Lek, I think dreaming is great, but soon you’ll need to narrow down the options.
Most of your dreams involve being a good person. At the center of all of your dreams, you want to contribute something to the world that will make your mother and family proud. You love them so much, and you want nothing more than to help make them happy.
At thirteen, you’re not yet sure how to make this happen. You are from a poor, very low-class hill tribe family in Thailand, and only rarely do you have the chance to leave your community. You often think, “How can I know what I want to be when I haven’t experienced big cities, driving in cars, and the outside world?”
Yet you can learn a lot from your community. Think locally. You don’t need to be a top model somewhere else in the world, a famous singer, or a doctor to give back to your people. Hill tribes like yours face many human rights problems in Thailand, and you can lend a helping hand. No matter what you see, who you meet, and where you travel, remember to always use your experiences to enrich the lives of people back home.
Your family doesn’t have a TV, but you have a radio. Listen to it so that you can learn about the outside world, but also pay attention to what the people around you have to say, especially the really old people in your life. Make sure to absorb every word they say.
Listen also to animals. Soon, you’ll realize that they seem to speak to you more than they do most other people, and every part of you will come alive when you commune and work with them. Animals will become your friends; they make you very happy. Later in life, you will work mainly with elephants and devote all of your days to their wellbeing. This will be a worthy way to spend your life.
Lek, every good thing starts small. You can’t jump from one to ten without first working through two, three, and four. Everything must start with small grass roots – Look to your family and your environment for answers. Learn from your brother and sister. Sometimes, they won’t have all the answers, and occasionally you’ll think that they’re selfish. But other times, they will share amazing things with you, and you’ll learn the value of their ideas. Give them opportunities to help you – it will be valuable for you all. It is from them that you will learn to listen to your heart and choose between what is right and wrong. This skill – no, this intuition – will help you listen even better to the needs and desires of your second set of brothers and sisters: elephants.
In this life, all the people you meet – no matter if they are from your local tribe or from the other side of the world – are part of one big global family. This is why you need to treat them right – we are all brothers and sisters. In being kind and respectful to everyone, you will lead a good life, become successful and make your family proud.
*Note – Advice Project Media and authors hold the copyright to all of the content on this website, meaning that this letter (or portions thereof) cannot be reprinted without permission. For more information about Lek and to find out how you can get involved with helping her beloved Asian elephants, visit Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park.