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Katherine Connor, the 2013 People's Choice Traveler of the Year (Photograph by Peggy Dyer)

Meet the People’s Choice Traveler of the Year

It would take a giant trunk to carry the parade of votes that piled up for Katherine Connor in our People’s Choice contest.

Thousands of votes were cast for all of the Travelers of the Year in a busy month of online action. In the end, Connor’s story of evolving from a London-based careerist to an Asia-rooted conservationist captured the crown.

But the real prize is increased awareness of her ongoing efforts to rescue elephants. “If we, National Geographic Traveler and BLES, can achieve one thing from this article, I hope we can help put an end to travelers coming to Thailand, riding the elephants, and supporting the tourist camps. We can end the cruelty,” she says.

We caught up with Connor — busy as ever in the bush, feeding and cleaning elephants, dogs, cats, and other animals in need — to trumpet the good news.

NGT: Congratulations! Does this swell of support affirm the value of your work?

KC: 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 traveling to Thailand. Many people do not realize that riding in a chair on the back of an elephant is seriously damaging and painful for the elephant.

Currently at BLES, we care for two elephants suffering from deformed spines caused from years of carrying around tourists. A lot of people think elephants are big and strong. Well, they are, but their backs are actually very weak and not designed to be carrying heavy loads of tourists for hours on end, day in, day out.

The fact that BLES has won this prestigious award proves the world is becoming more aware and taking the plight of Thailand’s elephants seriously.

NGT: How has social media helped you gain support for your projects?

KC: Social media has been a huge and successful tool for BLES. It has launched us into the world of animal welfare and, as a result of this, we are able to spread our message so much further. Instead of reaching out to a few dozen, we now connect with thousands of people every day.

NGT: What updates do you have since we last connected?

KC: This is an exciting time for BLES and our rescued animals! We are installing solar energy, fences, creating a medical clinic, securing land to enable the initial release of our rescued elephants, creating a brand-new and very-much-needed cat and dog home, as well as working together with two other organizations to establish a smaller sanctuary down in the south of Thailand.

NGT: What advice do you offer to others who are hoping to turn good intentions into good works?

KC: I passionately believe we all have the power within us to influence change and make a positive impact on the world.

Our gestures do not have to be big. Something as simple as buying a cup of coffee for a homeless person, feeding a stray dog, offering your seat to an elder, trash collecting, teaching a stranger something they never knew, making someone smile: all these things come from the heart and, as cheesy as it may sound, one kind gesture encourages another and another.

So if you have a dream, a passion, and want to help ease some of the suffering in the world, my advice to you is simple: Do It. There will always be people who try to discourage you or hold you back, but if you have that fire in your belly to make a change, nothing and no one will stop you.

George W. Stone is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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