Sangduen "Lek" Chailert was born in 1962 in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao, two hours north of Chiang Mai. Her love for elephants began when her grandfather, a traditional healer, received a baby elephant as payment for saving a man's life. Lek would spend many hours with her family's new friend, named Tongkum or Golden One, which would result in a passion that would shape the rest of her life.
Lek received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Chiang Mai University, and from there moved into working in the elephant tourist industry. While helping owners of trekking companies locate unemployed elephants, Lek quickly learned about the abuse and neglect that domestic Asian elephants experience.
With a love and respect for her country's national symbol and the knowledge that they were becoming endangered, Lek began advocating for the rights and welfare of Asian elephants in Thailand. In an industry that is steeped in its traditions, advocating for a change to the way domestic and wild Asian elephants are treated has not been an easy battle. But through hard work and determination her voice is beginning to be heard.
In addition to several documentaries about her work by National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet, and the BBC, Lek has also been honored to receive many awards. In 2005, Time Magazine named her a Hero of Asia for her work in conservation. The Ford Foundation in association with National Geographic named Lek a Hero of the Planet in 2001. Additionally, she has received two honorary degrees from Rajabaht Chiang Mai University; a PhD in Sustainability and Conservation in 2002, and a PhD in Veterinary Science in 2006. Finally, the National Geographic documentary Vanishing Giants, highlighting Lek's work with the Asian elephant, was recognized by the Humane Society of the United States with the Genesis Award in 2003.
In the coming years Lek hopes to bring her message about conservation and the humane treatment of Asian elephants to more people in and outside of Thailand. She will also continue to improve the lives of the rescued elephants living at Elephant Nature Park and provide emergency healthcare to elephants in remote villages throughout Thailand.