I felt that danger the first day I met world-renowned Asian elephant conservationist Lek Chailert. We'd taken a helicopter over the Cambodian jungle to survey the severity of the deforestation that was plaguing an elephant sanctuary there. We flew over acres of clear-cut land and through plumes of smoke from burning trees. The scene illuminated how rapidly wild spaces for elephants are disappearing.
Sangdeaun Chailert, also known as Lek
, which means "small" in Thai, was born in Thailand in 1962. In return for saving the life of a young man, her grandfather, a shaman or traditional healer, was given an elephant named Tong Kam, meaning Golden One. The bond that developed between Lek and Tong Kam sparked a love and respect for elephants that have shaped the course of her life
. In 2005, Lek was honored by Time Magazine as a "Hero of Asia" for her work to protect Asian elephants
. In 2010, she was honored by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as one of six Woman Heroes of Global Conservation and recently she spoke at the United Nations' Global Pact for the Environment summit.
The helicopter carrying us had just been cleared to land. Or so we thought. I was relieved to be on the ground, but within seconds we were surrounded by Cambodian military outfitted with camouflage fatigues, flip-flops, Rolex watches and AK-47s.
Lek is dedicated to making sure that people know. While on that first day, my fear of the men with AK-47s, coupled with nausea from the helicopter ride, caused me to throw up. But when I glanced over at Lek, she had her hands delicately folded atop a DSLR camera hanging around her neck.
This was not the first time Lek had been in this situation. Lek had positioned the barrel of her lens straight ahead to keep the soldiers, their guns, and every move they made in her sights. She was filming. Keeping her eyes on the action but with a serene smile she said, "Just keep filming. If they kill us, we will have proof."
We ended up having to pay the soldiers a thick wad of US dollars for our freedom to leave.
It's important to know that silence about the crisis of the Asian elephant has contributed to its becoming an endangered species. To put the Asian elephant crisis in perspective, there are 415,000 African elephants in the world, but only around 45,000 Asian elephants
, with a third of those in captivity. The discrepancy is so large because while African elephants are threatened by ivory hunters, Asian elephants have to contend with a disappearing habitat due to a boom in development and agriculture. In addition to being hunted for their body parts, Asian elephants are also used for commerce: in logging operations and trekking camps. Asian elephants are the elephants people are most familiar with because they're used in zoos, circuses and elephant rides, yet no one knows what this species is truly facing.
The second time I experienced that fraught calm before the storm was 2½ years later, sitting in the bed of a truck with Lek and an 8,000-pound elephant, plowing down the superhighway in Thailand to a sanctuary while filming my documentary, "Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story
." I was lucky enough to be part of the rescue of a 70-year-old partially blind elephant named Noi Na.
We were 20 hours into a 23-hour rescue when the journey soured. Noi Na, who had not been eating or drinking water, was hit with heatstroke. Her trunk, a dry, gray hose, was mashed up against a beam of the truck bed. Lek called out to the driver and the truck pulled over. She ordered all the mahouts off the truck. I asked her why. "If Noi Na faints, the truck could tip over."
Then that silence hit.
Lek's smile dropped, but she didn't flinch. She called her sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, to update them on Noi Na's status and make sure they were prepared for Noi Na's arrival. She had her iPad open on her lap to locate gas stations so we could hose her down with water. I had never been in a situation where your survival depended on being as focused as possible. I could not panic in the tight quarters of that truck. I could not dive into the pending wave of guilt and responsibility that I put a crew in danger. All we could do was keep filming.
Lek has used media as the most lethal weapon to defend and protect her person, and to expose truths about the plight of the Asian elephants to whose care she has devoted her life since the age of 15. She always surrounds herself with a video team, has a camera around her neck, or, for the last several years, an iPad wrapped in weather, element and elephant-proof armor tucked under her arm.
Her caution is not misplaced. In the early 2000s, Lek filmed undercover footage
of what it takes to break an elephant's spirit and turn a wild Asian elephant into one docile enough to give rides and perform at shows. The process is known as pajan
, aka the "crush box" and it was one of Southeast Asia's best-kept secrets
When you "crush" an elephant, you take the baby away from its mother, restrain it in a wooden box and beat it for 24 hours straight. This process lasts a week. The goal is to break the bond between the baby and its mother and replace it with the fear of man. If the beating doesn't work the first time, it will be repeated until it does.
The crush box footage was my "Aha" moment, the one that prompted me to make "Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story." The images and the sounds from the footage I saw changed my lens on the world. It affected me on such a profound level that I needed to do what I could to get this information out, which was making my documentary.
As Lek has taught me, the media can be a powerful weapon. I recently called her to share the news that Noi Na's journey and "Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story" will be released in theaters across the United States. I asked her if she would consider coming to Los Angeles and New York to do press. Lek's response: "Let's go to battle."
Lek has said the key to saving the Asian elephant is education. Her Facebook and YouTube channel Elephant News is an epicenter of pictures and videos of joyful elephants being elephants juxtaposed with elephants in jeopardy, each post inspiring and informative.
When asked what people can do to help, Lek recently said in a Q&A, "The most powerful tool to saving the biggest giants on Earth can fit in the palm of your hand."
When people know better, they do better. Doing one thing counts, especially for a species that's in such peril. Imagine what would happen if we all did one thing for an elephant. They won't forget.