I’ve been a huge fan of elephants all my life, probably dating back to watching The Jungle Book as a boy. Coming face-to-face with a massive bull on safari in South Africa only increased my respect for these majestic creatures. But, as anyone with an interest in wildlife conservation knows, elephants are becoming increasingly endangered, poached for their ivory in Africa and forced into back-breaking labor throughout Asia.
Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, who was born in the remote mountain community of Baan Lao in Northern Thailand in 1962, is an elephant lover who decided to do something about it. After graduating from Chiang Mai University, she opened the 250-acre Elephant Nature Park as a sanctuary for distressed elephants from all over Thailand. The park’s herd includes disabled, orphaned and blind elephants of all ages, many of which have been rescued from the abusive training involved in the logging, tourism and street begging industries.
We became interested in her work with ENP and Save Elephant Foundation last year, when our friend Diana from D Travels ‘Round went to work at the park. After seeing all of the amazing work Lek and her team of volunteers are doing to protect Asian elephants, a trip to Thailand quickly rose to the top of our 2013 Dream Trip List. Though the trip is still in the planning stages for now, we were delighted to get a chance to talk to Lek about her life’s mission, why travelers shouldn’t ride elephants or pay for elephant paintings, and the challenges facing wildlife conservation in Asia.
(The following is a guest post by Leyla Giray Alyanak, a former foreign correspondent who belonged to the WWF International management team, and now blogs about her travels at Women on the Road. If you’re a blogger interested in contributing a guest post, please contact Bret Love at [email protected])
When the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre opens its doors to the public in early 2014, visitors will be treated to a rare sight: 28 of the world’s smallest bears, as curious about us as we are about them.
I was fortunate to get a sneak peek behind the scenes at the BSBCC on a recent visit to the Malaysian state of Sabah. Everything is set: The visitor center and a second bear house are being built, and half a dozen cubs are already clambering over tree trunks and branches, looking around with mischief in their eyes.
Guaranteeing the Sun Bear’s survival in Borneo is one of the main reasons behind the conservation centre, and protecting its rainforest habitat is part of the centre’s mission. Unfortunately, Helarctos malayanus has been under serious threat throughout the rest of its range. In some places, including Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar and Vietnam, it has all but disappeared.
When you think of Thailand, you probably think of white sandy beaches, tropical cocktails, and crumbling temples. You probably also conjure up images of delicious food and friendly people. Those were certainly the visions I had before I visited, and thankfully they all turned out to be true.
But, after three months of exploration, I realized Thailand has a lot more to offer than *just* gorgeous beaches, temples and people. There are plentiful opportunities for getting up close to nature in some fantastic national parks, where the local wildlife comes front and center to the experience. Here are some of my favorite national parks in Thailand, to give you an idea of what the country has to offer!
SPECIES: Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) & Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus)
CURRENT RANGE: Sumatra (Indonesia) & Borneo (Malaysia and Indonesia)
CURRENT THREATS: Deforestation, poaching
CONSERVATION STATUS: Critically Endangered (Sumatran) and Endangered (Bornean)
WHERE YOU CAN SEE THEM: All over Malaysia and Indonesia, in the wild or at a rehabilitation center.
What are they?
The word “orangutan” means “man of the forest” in the Malay language… which makes sense when you consider that orangutans share 96.4% of our genes. They have grasping hands at the end of long arms, which allows them to swing through trees from branch to branch. They can grow to be between 1.25 and 1.5 metres tall; females weigh in at 30-50kg, and males at 50-90kg. We can easily identify orangutans by their red hair, but another distinguishing physical feature in males can be specified as “flanged” or “unflanged.” The flanged males have prominent cheek pads and a throat sack for long calls, whereas the unflanged orangutans do not have such features. They eat wild fruits such as lychees, mangosteens, and figs, and extract water from holes in trees by slurping it up.
If you’ve followed wildlife conservation with even a cursory interest over the past decade, you know that Asia is the major hotbed for illegal activity in the wildlife trade.
Rhinos are being slaughtered at a horrific rate to meet the “need” for their horn. Elephants are murdered for their ivory. Tigers are hunted for the alleged aphrodisiacal powers of their penis. Millions of sharks are mutilated– their fins hacked off while they’re still alive– to make shark fin soup. And thousands of Asiatic black bears (a.k.a. moon bears) are kept in cramped cages, with machines sucking out their bile for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
It was the latter practice that inspired British-born Jill Robinson to create the Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based charity whose mission is to end cruelty to animals in Asia. Awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth in 1998, and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries award for world’s best sanctuary in 2011, Robinson has worked tirelessly to end the barbaric practice of bear bile farming, improve animal welfare in Asia, and educate China’s government and general public on the importance of wildlife consrvation.
It was an honor to speak with Robinson about the Animals Asia Foundation mission, the challenges facing wildlife conservation in Asia, and what she sees as signs of hope for the future.