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Jumbo ambulance saves elephants

From Emily Wither, for CNN
updated 12:47 AM EST, Mon December 5, 2011
Family matters: Elephants in their natural family group at a rescue center in northern Thailand
Family matters: Elephants in their natural family group at a rescue center in northern Thailand
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants in Northern Thailand
  • The foundation also runs an emergency field clinic for elephants in remote villages
  • Many of Thailand's elephants work in the tourism industry
  • The park educates people on how to care for the mammal

Editor's note:

(CNN) -- Sangduen "Lek" Chailert is known as Thailand's elephant queen.

For over a decade she has been working tirelessly to save abused elephants after seeing first-hand the mistreatment many of them faced while working in the timber industry.

"When I first saw elephants pulling logs in the jungle it changed my life," she said.

"As it pulled the chain to move the logs it cut deep in to his skin... I saw the look in his eye and the pain he was in.

From the venues we know of in Thailand, the majority allow only very limited social interaction with other elephants, usually only if chained up near one another.
Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, World Society for the Protection of Animals

"I couldn't get it out of my head and it made me realize I need to go and do something for the elephants, someone needs to stand up for them, they can't speak so I need to do it for them."

Chailert's response was to set up the Elephant Nature Foundation that provides a sanctuary and rescue center in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand, where elephants from all over the country can be nursed back to health.

One of the programs Chailert runs from the center is a field clinic for elephants called Jumbo Express. With a team of volunteers she travels to some of the remotest hill tribe villages in the country administering emergency health care to stricken animals.

"When I visit the villages I see so many elephants suffering but not just elephants, cats, dogs, hens and other animals and there's not much that can be done because these villages are so remote there are no doctors up there to help," she said.

An endangered species, Asian elephants in Thailand have seen their number decline dramatically over the last few decades, with only 500 estimated to be left in the wild in the country.

The 1989 ban on logging also meant that thousands of working elephants were left unemployed. With a lack of work in the forest, many elephants and their owners were forced in to the cities to beg, while others quickly became an essential part of the tourism industry working in elephant camps and circuses.

'Begging' elephants in Bangkok

Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, from the World Society for the Protection of Animals, says elephants working in the tourism industry can be subjected to terrible cases of animal cruelty.

"The required extreme restraint of animals in the vast majority of elephant camps does not allow for free movements of the animals," he said.

It is really hard sometimes seeing people abusing the animals but sometimes it is down to a lack of education.
Lek Chailert, founder Elephant Nature Park

In an area famous for its tourist elephant camps, Chailert says her center allows elephants time to heal and live in self-chosen family groups.

This is something that Schmidt-Burbach says is very important.

"Elephants are some of the most socially developed mammals in the world, with the females forming large and stable groups for all their life. Depriving them from social interaction with other elephants must be seen as an act of cruelty," he said.

"From the venues we know of in Thailand, the majority allow only very limited social interaction with other elephants, usually only if chained up near one another," he continued.

Chailert believes that conditions can only be improved at grass-roots level through education.

In many of the remoter villages in Thailand elephants are still used as essential members of the community's workforce and for entertaining visiting tourists.

As well as caring for elephants and giving them everything from injections to medicine the Jumbo Express program also hopes to educate local people so they can care for the animals once they leave.

"It is really hard sometimes seeing people abusing the animals but sometimes it is down to a lack of education," she explains.

Chailert says that in most cases the elephant's owner, known as a "mahout", doesn't have the skills or knowledge to tend to their animals properly.

She cites the example of a jungle-trekking elephant that was carrying tourists on mountainous trails with a glass bottle lodged inside its foot because her owner did not know how to remove the object.

"They don't treat their animals properly when they are sick and there is the risk that disease will spread to their families," Chailert said.

"So when we go up there we decide to educate the villagers on how to care for the elephants with the same love they show towards their families and ask them for their co-operation to look up to the animal," she continued.

The Elephant Nature Foundation works with various tribes including the Karen people to make sure elephants are not exploited. She says that tourism is the biggest threat facing Thailand's elephants.

"We don't want to discourage tourism, it helps the elephant but we need to educate the people in how to look after their animals in a more humane way, but the problem right now is that they see tourists there and they see nothing but money," Chailert said.

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