Last year about this time I was sitting at a small Khmer cafe when an exhausted elephant pulled up. When you work in SE Asia, it’s paramount to control your emotions in public, even when waves of harsh feelings and fierce judgements roll in time and time again.
It’s easy to lash out (which will not only get you nowhere here, but will also culturally and politically eliminate any opportunity for you to enact change in the future), or to do the opposite and become paralyzed in depression and overwhelm when witnessing yet another animal’s wounds, or to explode in outrage when you witness tourists paying to swim with/take a ride/hug on or click a selfie of another captive elephant without seeing what damage their actions perpetuate.
It is only consistent education for tourists and locals alike, along with generating sustainable options for the owners of the elephants already in captivity, that can break the chains which confine captive elephants to a life of cruelty and to help keep the last remaining wild elephants in freedom.
The work takes far more patience than what comes naturally. Habits and hearts are slow to change and true sanctuaries take time and money to build. At the same time, the work of reforesting elephant habitat and helping elevate rural elephant owners out of poverty is not usually what people consider when they say they want to volunteer to help elephants.
Longterm systemic changes require openminded dialogues with locals, tourists, volunteers, the wealthy, the poor. It’s easy to spew venom or simply turn away when what lies in front of us seems impossible to change, but with every passing week working across SE Asia, we’re witnessing the power of possibility as people learn the truth, change their minds, and work together for a future that exchanges a past filled with conflict for a future embracing coexistence.
Little by little, however you can, wherever you are, just Reach Out and Let What Moves You Move the World.
We won’t give up, and we know you won’t give up either.