Lek Chailert: When the Lawyer met the Elephant Whisperer

Lek Chailert, elephant activist, her story

The following article, written by Ecoflix Founder David. B. Casselman, describes the incredible life-story of Lek Chailert and David’s first meeting with the irrepressible elephant activist.

Today, I want to focus on my gratefulness for the support, education, and endless wisdom bestowed upon me by many people in my life, but in particular by Lek (Saengduean) Chailert from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It has been my good fortune to have had many remarkable mentors in my life. Beginning with my father, Harry Casselman, a world class trial lawyer and later an arbitrator. Next, it was Ed DeBuys, a lovely man, who was the partner who trained me in the first law firm willing to hire me after passing the California Bar exam.

And then there have been friends who encouraged me, like Michael Bell in Los Angeles, a passionate gladiator for animals, who insisted that I could do a lot of good by using my legal training to serve as the voice for the countless, helpless, animals around the world.

And there have been so many more, but none quite like Lek Chailert.

Lek Chailert: the myth, the legend

“Lek” means “tiny” in Thai. And Lek qualifies, physically. She is slight of build and well under 5 feet tall. But what she lacks in physical stature, she more than makes up for in courage, wisdom, and an indefatigable spirit, which compels her to help animals of any size or stripe, day or night, sick or well.

Her compassion and energy are unquestionably contagious. Anyone near her feels compelled to reach down deep and do more, just to try and keep up with Lek, as she solves problems left and right.

Not many know that Lek has been threatened many times and ways by people who did not want her to object to or stop the cruel business of breaking and riding elephants. Trekking has long been the number one tourist attraction in Thailand. But, less well known, is that trekking—as it is called to attract the millions of tourists who come to ride them—causes immeasurable, brutal, and bloody harm to the body as well as to the spirit of every trekking elephant.

In response, Lek has been fighting against that cruelty since she was a small young child growing up in the Hill Tribe of Thailand.

Unmoved by the financial consequences of her public outcry against such inhumane treatment of elephants, Lek was rejected by her own family, exiled by her country, and quite literally hunted by those who threatened her life, and would most certainly do her serious bodily harm… or worse.

Such animosity lasted for many years.

But, by sheer force of will, and remaining very hard to find, she managed to survive those long decades along the path she has chosen.

Now, she is a member of the Thai Parliament, an invited speaker to the United Nations, befriended and honored by heads of state, and much more. But she has not changed: not even a little. She is still riveted to the notion that all living things deserve dignity and protection from undue harm.

Having just celebrated her 60th birthday, she is still the same young lady from Thailand who could not be corrupted or diverted from her life’s work, to save elephants, and indeed all
animals… even people.

Lek Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park

Finding and meeting Lek Chailert

And it is here that I enter the story.

I met Lek decades ago, after searching for years to find someone who knew her or could help me speak to her. I was given the honor of being permitted to protect one million acres of unmined jungle land in Cambodia. I desperately needed her wisdom to do it “the right way.” Too many sanctuaries talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. I needed to learn from this one truly incorruptible source, how to do it right.

And as luck would have it, one day when I least expected it, the opportunity fell in my lap. After requesting an introduction from someone who said they knew her, almost a year passed without a word.

Then, one day while I was at a legal conference in Hawaii, I received an email telling me that Lek had agreed that I could have her number. Without even considering what time it was in Thailand, I was so excited, I just pushed the link in the email, and called her, just like that.

Even as the phone was ringing, I realized that it could be the middle of the night there. But, before I could hang up, someone answered in a very gruff tone. “Hello?”

What followed was one of the most magical experiences of my life. It was Lek. I quickly tried to explain my situation and asked if I might get some advice or assistance with my sanctuary efforts.

After a long pause, she asked: “Did you say you have control over one million acres?” I said, “Yes.” Then, after another long pause, she asked: “And you say that you are working in partnership with the Cambodian government?” I said “Yes.”

Once again after a long pause, she asked: “When can we meet?”

My answer was to fly home from Hawaii, catch the first plane to Thailand, and in less than a week, I was in her presence at Elephant Nature Park. After two days of unbelievable overstimulation and education about, around, and under Asian elephants, I asked her: “Would you like to see the land we have been allowed to use to develop the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary?”

Now it was her turn. In a heartbeat, she said “Yes.” So, the next day we flew to Bangkok and down to Siem Reap, followed by a 2-hour crucible over terrible roads, until we got to the site of our future Sanctuary (today, the roads are paved, and it is a fairly simple one-hour drive).

When we finally stopped, Lek got out of the car, and looked up at the massive Mahogany, Rubber, and Teak trees covering the million acres set aside for us. We had driven through endless miles of clear-cut land, with almost no trees of substance in sight.

She walked a bit into the canopy, which stood out from all of the land around it.

She bent over and plucked some grass or other vegetation.

She smelled it.

Then turned to me with tears in her eyes and said: “When do we start?”

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

Lek Chailert, David B. Casselman and co.

And so began an amazing friendship, partnership, mentorship, and much more.

I have done my best to help Lek Chailert, and Darrick Thompson, her husband, an equally remarkable human being over the years. I have tried to provide sound legal counsel, and some substantial financial contributions when it was clear that it was much needed.

In return, I have received so much more.

As they have saved elephants, dogs, monkeys, gibbons, pythons, and many more animals, both at Elephant Nature Park and at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, I have learned things I cannot even put into words.

Yes, I learned a great deal about animals, and it is precious information. But nothing can compare to spending hours with, or talking to Lek, and feeling her goodness as it radiates from within. Helping Lek, Darrick, and many others who give of themselves so selflessly, is a joy, not a burden. Lek and other people who drive themselves every day to help animals inspire me, constantly. In return, I do my best to help them, often financially. Sometimes legally.

They are the very best humanity has to offer.

Trying to live up to the goodness and purity of mind and spirit which Lek exemplifies every day is a challenge. She is the Mother Theresa of our generation. Pure goodness.

Indeed, once my wife Pam and I were talking to her at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, and a butterfly literally landed on Lek. Amazed, I watched as that beautiful butterfly just rested there and opened and closed its wings. It could feel her goodness too. All I could say was, “See Lek, even the butterflies know…”