Photograph by Peggy Dyer
When Katherine Connor left England on a nine-month adventure in Asia, she had no idea that a chance encounter would change her forever. “I knew there was more to life—and more to me—than working Monday to Friday and getting drunk every weekend,” says Connor, who quit her job, sold her house, and dismissed her fiancé in 2002. Just like in Eat, Pray, Love, romance and enlightenment awaited her—with big differences.
Romance blossomed when she came nose-to-trunk with a baby elephant, and enlightenment continues to develop over the course of muddy and buggy 18-hour days in northern Thailand as the founder of Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. The nonprofit is committed to the rescue, recovery, and retirement of abused Asian elephants. “I always tell people to travel with your heart, because it will lead down some interesting paths,” she says. “That’s what I did, and now I’m sitting here on 535 acres of forested land I’ve protected, surrounded by 13 elephants I’ve saved, more than 50 other animals I’ve rescued, and my three beautiful children.”
For the last decade Connor, now 32, has formed relationships with elephants that reveal just how much we share with our wild brethren. “I love their emotional intelligence, their ability to forgive, their passion for family, and their loyalty.”
While Connor’s mission is straightforward, her task takes on pachydermic proportions. The goal of Boon Lott’s elephant sanctuary (named in honor of the baby tusker Connor initially cared for) is to purchase elephants from negligent or overburdened owners and secure hundreds of acres of forested land as a habitat. It’s a costly endeavor and one with a share of critics, who counter that buying abused elephants sustains a dangerous underworld economy. But Connor is undaunted. “Not one owner has used the funds given to him, by us, to purchase another elephant,” she notes.
“There’s an education out there that we can’t get from sitting behind a desk—and travel is central to this,” says Connor. “We have to challenge ourselves.”
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: Tell me more about your pre-elephant days.
Katherine Connor: I was a professional dancer until emergency surgery on my ankle forced me to retire from the stage prematurely. I then started working in retail management and had a very successful career. I had a great life. I bought a house and was engaged to be married. But something didn’t feel right. I knew there was more to life and more to me than the materialistic, selfish life I had been sucked into. I was looking for something, but had no idea what it was until it found me.
NGT: And that’s when you met an elephant?
KC: I have always had a passion for all animals, but elephants held a special place in my heart. I didn’t sort it all out until I went traveling, when I was 21, and saw a baby elephant for the first time. That baby elephant was Boon Lott and he changed my life forever. I realized I needed to take action and help conserve the Asian elephant.
NGT: Why did you establish your reserve?
KC: I founded Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary because, as far as I could see, there was no hope for elephants in Thailand. There was nobody putting their welfare first. Every place I visited—so-called sanctuaries—were all about making money, exploiting elephants, bringing in the tourists and keeping tourists happy. My motivation, very simply really, was that I wanted to make the elephants happy!
I have two goals for BLES. One is to secure thousands of acres of forested land, fence it off, and then release our rescued elephants back into their natural habitat. They will be able to live as wild elephants once more and will be protected by me and my team of skilled mahouts. The second goal for BLES is to establish a state-of-the-art medical clinic to support elephants and all other animals in our area. Right now there is nothing, not even a spay and neuter program for cats and dogs. We will offer free treatment to all animals. It will serve as a school for vet students and will offer job opportunities to the young hopefuls in the neighboring villages.
NGT: Was it hard to launch a charity?
KC: Yes. I was very much on my own with my vision. First I established BLES as a UK charity in 2005. Then I started fundraising while working full-time and saving every spare penny I had. I sold practically everything I owned and stood on street corners in the pouring rain, holding a bucket. I needed every penny, every pound, and was prepared to do absolutely anything to raise it! I wrote letters to every charity, organization, company I could think of. I didn’t want to let the elephants down, so not raising the money was simply not an option. I moved back to Thailand in 2006 to start building BLES. It has been a roller coaster of ups and downs ever since!
NGT: What do you most love about elephants?
KC: I love everything about elephants. Elephants are the best teachers. They could teach us humans a lot about the importance of family and how we should all understand our role within the family and show respect to all our elders. Elephants have the ability to learn to trust in humans, despite all the heartbreak we have caused them. It is true, they never forget, yet they find it in their hearts to move on. Over the years, when I have had to deal with personal heartache, I think back to the elephants and tell myself, “Katherine, what you are dealing with right now, will pass. It is minor compared to what the elephants have suffered, and look at them. They have forgiven, they have moved on, they have survived. If they can do it, after all they have been through, then so can you.”
I think the reason so many of us are drawn to them is because we know they are emotionally and mentally more intelligent than we could ever be. They are physically stronger than any other mammal to walk this Earth and have lived here longer, much longer, than most species. There is something almost magical about them. When they look at you, they see you—they read your heart and soul. Even after 11 years of living beside them, they still move me to tears in a heartbeat, make me laugh out loud, and make my heart swell with pride daily.
NGT: Do you have a travel philosophy?
KC: There is always a lesson to learn from the challenges the universe presents to us. There is always something good that can come from a bad situation. There is always an opportunity to turn things around. And I feel we will only learn these things when we step out of our comfort zones, travel and immerse ourselves in other cultures, teach ourselves different languages, and experience a different way of life.
NGT: What’s your advice to other travelers?
KC: Follow your heart always. It may lead you to some tough life experiences, but these things will shape you and you will learn valuable lessons about the world, about life, and about yourself. I always say that people who feel lost, who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, should start a journey without a destination. Traveling and following my heart is what led me here and I will always be grateful.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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