The scene that met Lek Chailert was a massive shock. She knew the baby elephant was an orphan and would likely need attention. The calf she saw, however, was a bag of bones. The animal rescuer couldn’t help but question how much longer the poor pachyderm could hold on.
Chailert is an animal enthusiast from a tribal village in Thailand called Chiang Mai. She made her name as a champion to elephants when she created the country’s Elephant Nature Park. She’s also the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation.
Chailert’s made it her life’s work to fight not only for the rights of elephants, but for other animals, too. Furthermore, she’s received several accolades in the past, including being one of the Women Heroes of Global Conservation in 2010. Chailert’s recent fame, though, came to pass due to an incident with her beloved pachyderms.
But the attention wasn’t based at her own Elephant Nature Park. It was actually the result of a discovery the animal rescuer made while visiting another sanctuary. Chailert told her story through a post she uploaded to social media in March 2017.
“For the last couple of weeks, I [had] heard of [a] wild baby elephant orphanage,” Chailert wrote on Facebook. “And it brought me to the point of visiting them at Winga Baw camp.” As it turned out, the orphanage needed a lot more help than she expected.
The orphanage was custodian to three baby elephants, and Chailert was particularly concerned about them. “There [was] a seven-month-old named Yuyu, a captive elephant whose mother ‘died,’” Chailert wrote. “There [were] also two other babies, one about four months old, named Mary.”
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Asian elephants are endangered. Like most babies, the elephant calves were reliant on their mother’s milk to grow strong and healthy. Without a mommy, they were all in a potentially dangerous situation.
It was the final elephant calf in the orphanage that concerned her the most: a little three-month-old baby called Eyeyarmay. Although Chailert didn’t mention what happened to the orphaned pachyderm’s mother, Eyeyarmay was in a terrible state. She was clearly suffering without her mom by her side.
While all the calves needed attention, Eyeyarmay was especially vulnerable. Indeed, she seemed to be in the late stages of starvation. In fact, she was so emaciated that her bones were clearly visible beneath her malnourished skin. The poor calf looked like a living skeleton.
“The baby requires direct care… and motherly accompaniment,” Chailert wrote on Facebook. “I [came] here to suggest how to make the baby feel comfortable and to get the best care. This camp is very new and just recently opened,” she explained.
“To take care of baby nutrition it is very sensitive because their life at this stage is very fragile,” she continued. But as Chailert went on to reveal, that wasn’t the only problem the orphanage had to tackle. There was also the matter of getting the milk.
“In Myanmar it is so difficult to get baby elephant milk formula,” Chailert wrote. “The camps still use cow milk to feed them. But this can cause them dysentery, which complicates their health status a lot.” The orphanage needed elephant baby milk formula, and fast.
However, the milk was not only rare in Myanmar, it was hard to obtain in other parts of the world, too. Elephant milk formula was first fine-tuned by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. It created the substitute using a cocktail of additives, vegetable fat and human milk powder.
But even the Trust admitted that the formula was tough to create, stating, “all the milk has to be imported from the UK, the Netherlands and Israel.” The nearest provider to Myanmar was Grober Nutrition in Quebec, Canada. With that in mind, Chailert appealed for help.
Fortunately, the story of Eyeyarmay and the orphan elephants had touched hearts across social media. Chailert reached out with a moving request for assistance to help the babies get the milk that would save their lives. And she wasn’t disappointed.
In March 2017 the Save Elephant Foundation told news website MUY that the campaign was a resounding success. “We have been contacted by hundreds of people from the most remote parts of the planet,” it reported. “The response was so great that we had to open an account to receive the donations.”
And on March 25, 2017, three days after her Facebook post, Chailert uploaded a video to YouTube. It featured her teaching the elephant orphanage staff how to look after their baby calves. Hopefully, with Chailert’s guidance, Winga Baw camp will have a bright future.
The video was enough to bring tears to the eyes, and for some YouTube viewers, it did just that. Chailert sang a beautiful lullaby as the calf went to sleep her lap. One commenter said it all when she wrote, “this woman sings to my soul.”
Thanks to the donations received from animal lovers worldwide, it seems like Eyeyarmay and her friends will grow up happy. And as long as people like Chailert fight for change, there is still hope for the species. She has certainly been leading by example and compassion.
“I never think, ‘[the] elephant is an animal,’ I think they are a person,” she told CBS News in June 2016. “That is why when I talk to them I treat them like my family. When one day they start rolling in the mud [or] enjoy trumpeting […] that is the day I have a tear. I have a tear of joy.”