Katherine Connor’s life changed forever when she left her job in London and embarked on a trip around Asia 10 years ago.
Shortly into her travels, she formed a bond with Boon Lott, a three-month-old elephant calf whom she met while volunteering in an elephant hospital in northern Thailand. As she fought to keep him healthy, raising money to prevent a premature separation from his mother, she decided to dedicate her life to protecting abused elephants like him.
“Every place I visited — so-called sanctuaries — were all about making money, exploiting elephants, bringing in the tourists and keeping tourists happy,” she said to National Geographic Traveller’s George W. Stone. “Many people do not realise that riding in a chair on the back of an elephant is seriously damaging and painful for the elephant.”
In 2005 she founded the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary, in honour of her first pachyderm friend. Located on hundreds of acres of fenced-off forestland in northern Thailand, the sanctuary allows the elephants to roam and grow in their natural habitat.
Connor’s story captured the hearts of thousands of National Geographic Traveller readers, who after a month of voting have named her the 2013 People’s Choice Traveller of the Year.
“I am deeply honored to have won the People’s Choice Award. It is a very exciting opportunity to raise the profile for Thailand’s elephants and educate the public about the cruelty elephants suffer when forced to entertain tourists travelling to Thailand,” she said.
She hopes her work will inspire others to explore and preserve the world around them.
“There’s an education out there that we can’t get from sitting behind a desk — and travel is central to this,” Connor said to Stone. “We have to challenge ourselves.”
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