jack Lanting (17yr old Founder of Kwan Jai Elephant foundation) tells his story in his own words.
Nine years ago I met an elephant named Lily who had been rescued from the logging industry. She had been fed methamphetamine's to keep her going by her two owners. One worked her 7 days a week while the other worked her 7 nights a week. She was huge and I was small in comparison, but she was also gentle, funny and opened my eyes and heart to the needs of elephants living and working in Thailand.
Every kid has their superheroes they want to emulate. They have super powers; they fly, become invisible and shoot lasers from their eyes or webs from their wrists. My superhero I grew up with had none of these gimmicks. She was tiny and real and to me, everything I wanted to be. Her super power was saving elephants. Her name is Lek Chailert and she saved Lily.
Lek Founded Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and she wasn’t just a hero whom I watched on TV or Facebook - she became my mentor and my friend. The first thing she ever taught me was also the most important lesson I have learnt so far - that education is the key to the survival of elephants and indeed for the conservation of all endangered species and the environment.
As an 8 year old I was very shy, but I thought of Lily, I thought of the other elephants not as lucky as she, I thought of Lek’s words and I stood up and spoke - at my school to begin with, then at other schools in my district, neighbouring towns, Rotary, Altrusa and Probus groups, the Deaf Foundation, to the media, to anyone anywhere who would have me. I spoke and people listened and they learnt. I’ve met people in Thailand who couldn’t remember my name but they remembered my message and changed their plans from entertainment to sanctuary. Often it’s just a matter of opening eyes to a reality not yet considered, like Lily did for me. From here people can ask the right questions and make better choices that have a positive impact on the world.
When I asked my mum if we could save an elephant her first response was no, we can’t afford to. But I didn’t accept that answer and came back to her a few days later with a list of ways we could fundraise. This time she said “yes,” but with a caution that the money needed would take years for me to raise. Again I could not accept this, as I was acutely aware with every day that passed another day of suffering was endured by the elephant I was yet to meet. I firmly believed in myself and worked to a deadline of returning to Thailand the following year, and I did, with $20,000 in my hand, excited to begin the search for the elephant I would rescue.
Walking away from each elephant I found needing rescue was painful. I wanted to save them all, but I only had enough money for one. Many had suggested I buy a young elephant that could grow up alongside me. It kinda made sense, but I fell in love with an old elephant in her 70’s. Her eyelashes had been removed, infection had set-in in her eyes and she was still carrying tourists on her back 11 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a broken back leg. She needed to feel what it was like to be loved and free before she died. I knew it was going to hurt to lose her one day, but I didn’t care.
After an eventful 24 hours in the back of a truck with an elephant suffering from diarrhoea, we arrived at Elephant Nature Park, everyone exhausted. I led her from the truck, offered her water and a little food and then walked her out into the sanctuary that was now her home. A little unsure of herself, I stayed by her side until she felt safe. A sloppy, wet-trunk ‘kiss’ seemed to say ‘thank you’, and then she was off. She walked and walked and walked for days, because she could. She was free.
Hearing their name may bring back negative memories for elephants transitioning into new, positive lives, so they are often given new names. I chose ‘Kwan Jai’ because it means 'Beloved’ in Thai, and she was going to be loved.
In the weeks that followed her arrival at ENP, I helped Kwan Jai to adjust as she became increasingly aware that no matter what she did, there would be no punishment to follow. She needed double the food that the other elephants were eating to increase her weight, and she was totally ok with that. Kwan Jai got into so much mischief and she was funny, although she pulled multiple trees down, invaded the peanut farm next door, broke a few chairs and destroyed the roof of the elephant clinic twice.
Kwan Jai had a fear of the river and reluctant to go near it. So I was using a hose to wash her and play with her several times a day. The discharge from her eyes caused by infection annoyed her. She learnt really quickly that I would do anything for her and she’d ask me for what she wanted. Placing the end of her trunk just under her eyes meant she wanted me to wash the discharge away, and I did. Opening her mouth meant feed me, and I did. Vets actually suspected for her first few weeks at the park, that she may have had partial paralysis of her trunk. But she didn't, it was just a matter of, "if I don't need to feed myself, why bother."
It was almost two weeks of trying before I could get Kwan Jai into the river past the depth of her toenails. I tricked her actually. I’d spent a night away from her in town and didn’t get back to the park until after lunch. I was dying to see her, had missed her so much. When I found her, her mahout was using bananas in an effort to coax her yet again, down to the river. She looked like the first time I’d met her, only she wasn’t in chains. She seemed so down and lethargic.
When she spotted me over her mahout’s shoulder, she was instantly taller, so happy to see me and running to be with me. People literally had to dive out of her way and Mum, realising her fixation on me, suggested I walk out into the river. It worked. She didn’t realise where she was or what she was doing, until she was up to her belly in water. Then she was scared. I gently talked to her, washed the discharge under her eyes and slowly the trembling subsided and she began to enjoy the experience, so much so she had to be bribed with a pineapple to get back out. From then on the river was our favourite place to play.
I fell over once in the river when she had almost caught me in a game of chase. She could have easily stood on me, but she didn’t. She stopped, helped me back onto my feet with her trunk and we continued our game. On my many visits back to be with her, this was how it always was with us. Acting far younger than her age, Kwan Jai loved to play with me.
Kwan Jai sadly never made friends with any of the other elephants. I was her friend, her family and she was mine. She was special to a lot of people, loved by so many, one even having her tattooed onto the back of their shoulder. After an altercation with another elephant Kwan Jai became the most disabled at ENP. Most other elephants would have succumbed to a far lesser injury, but not her. She had so much strength and spunk.
I couldn’t get to her for a few weeks after her accident and she was low and refusing to move, but once I was with her that all changed and her healing began. Her drive to be close to me led to her physio including games of hide and seek in the tall grass. We also loved making mud together and the mud fights that would follow. I inspired her to move, to play once more and to be happy. She also inspired people visiting as they witnessed how she didn’t allow her disabilities to stop her from enjoying her life. In return, she inspired me.
I’d just woken up and was getting ready for school when we got the call from Lek that I had dreaded one day coming. Kwan Jai was really bad; she’d been down for two days. Elephants generally don’t get back up again once they’ve been down for that long, in fact Lek and also Rinku, Kwan Jai’s vet, had never seen it happen. She wasn’t expected to live through the night. A friend rushed over to her with her phone and put us on speaker so that we could talk to her one last time. Even as weak as she was, we were told that when she heard my voice Kwan Jai had lifted her trunk in search of me.
Mum decided right then that we would try and get to her before she died. Bags packed, we were heading to the airport within 15 minutes, dropping off a car full of pets with family and friends along the way. It was crazy. We were running on adrenaline. Friends and new friends we hadn’t yet met, some travelling over an hour to get to Kwan Jai, took shifts to sit with her, telling her I was on my way and to hang in there. She was never alone. A little before midnight we arrived in Chiang Mai, asking with trepidation “is she still alive”. She was.
Kwan Jai was soundly asleep when I curled up around her face. As she slowly woke with the sun and became aware, she suddenly realised I was there with her. Although incredibly weak, her eyes were instantly alert and fixed on me and we were told there was a brightness in her that hadn’t been seen for quite a while. It took all her strength, but she pulled her trunk around me before letting out one of her slow purring rumbles.
We cuddled like that for an hour or so before the astonishing happened. She was attempting to stand, and with help, she accomplished her mission, shocking everyone.
Ten days I was gifted with her. Ten very precious days where she would not allow me to be out of her reach, sometimes trying to tuck her head under my arm like my dog does. She still had her mischievous side and we even, on her best day, made mud again together, spending 2 glorious hours in the afternoon sun playing in our “mess”.
I barely left Kwan Jai’s side during that time, with Mum, friends, staff and volunteers bringing me food and water. I tended to her every need, helping with her vet care as she trusted me and was calm around me. Rinku used me to keep her calm during her daily saline infusions. She was usually problematic for them which led to multiple attempts to put the line into her ear or leg. As I sat between her legs leaning back onto her stomach, only one, easy attempt was needed. I’d tell her about the elephant sanctuary I wanted to build one day; that I’d name it after her, so all the elephants living there would be loved like she was, and I promised to spend the rest of my life helping elephants, giving them a better life, just like I had done for her.
There was a storm her last day. I’d kept the rain and flies off her and she was so tired. As darkness fell, I told her it was ok to go even though I didn’t want her to die. She passed away that night to the trumpets of the other elephants, a final goodbye.
It hasn’t just been Kwan Jai. There have been 4 others that I raised funds for and helped to leave their working lives behind. There were hundreds of us pooling our fundraising efforts together to bring Wassana, Mee Chok and Pang Dow to Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary. Then three years ago I joined teacher Tracey Hand to bring Sook Sai to ENP. Arguably one of the most stroppy and dangerous elephants living at the park, she found it hard to leave her past behind or to trust any human, with good reason. However, recently her mind set has changed - she has come down from her jungle isolation, allowed people to come closer and finally found the happiness we dreamed she’d have.
I’ve spent more than half my life working with and for elephants, learning all that I can to do the best that I can for them. I still have so much more to learn I will probably never stop learning. But one thing I know for sure, when I am with them, I feel that I belong.
Just over a year ago I excitedly went off into the jungle to live with elephants in their natural habitat for a week. My mother was ill and unable to come with me so I was flying solo for the first time. She likes to say I went in as a teenage elephant lover and walked out as a grown-up, wise conservationist.
I had obsessively planned out every detail of the elephant sanctuary I dreamed of starting, speaking of little else for 6 years. When I came back from the jungle my first words to my mum were “I don’t want an elephant sanctuary any more”. The next were even more worrying to her “there is no point in saving elephants....” Luckily I clarified things somewhat when I finished my sentence. “.....if there is no habitat for them and conservation efforts will not work if people living next to or near elephant habitats aren’t on board”.
It’s that simple. It made so much sense to me. I wasn’t going to have an elephant sanctuary because I was going to build an elephant project.
I’ve been asked many times, “why elephants?” “Why do what you do?” The answer has always been simple to me. There are already so many people dedicated to hurting them and despite what they have been through, with the size and strength they process, most are still gentle and forgiving and don’t hold grudges against humans, even though they have every right to.
Yes I have been through some hard times and I’m sure there are a lot more to come, but the elephants go through far worse, so how can I let anything discourage me? I can’t. I won’t. Seeing freedom transform them, to see their obvious happiness, that is why I do all that I do. That is what gives me the strength to fight another day for them.
I once heard a quote by Robert Swan. He’s said “There is no greater threat to the planet than people believing someone else will fix things”. It’s true, and I’m not prepared to wait for someone else to do something, when I know I can do it myself. I’ve never imagined a life where I am not working for elephants. More than anything, I want to give them a life worth living where they get to know their own, true character.