In mid-January, I was spreading our Humane Tourism campaign for travelers and our Elephant Love Project for children throughout Cambodia. One afternoon I was working in a small Khmer cafe in the southern part of the country when a broken and battered elephant pulls up, a wave of emotions overtaking me in no time flat. I followed the elephant and rider throughout the town, educating and engaging the tourists and locals alike the best I could to the reality of what they were seeing. It was shaky ground to communicate in a foreign language to locals and especially encouraging the tourists to look past the exoticism of what they were seeing and peer in to the probable lives of both the elephant in captivity and the rider in poverty.
It’s easy to be paralyzed in depression when you see yet another animal’s wounds, to throw harsh words upon locals when you observe them pass their babies under the elephant’s belly in their belief in its’ blessing, and to explode in outrage when you witness tourists paying to take a selfie without seeing what damage their actions perpetuate .
And yet it is consistent education for tourists and locals alike, along with generating sustainable options for the elephants already in captivity, that can break the cruel cycle trapping elephants in tourism and temples.
The work takes far more patience than what comes naturally. Habits and hearts are slow to change, true sanctuaries take time to build, and reforesting elephant habitat or helping elevate rural elephant “owners” up from poverty is usually not what people want to do when they say they want to volunteer to help elephants.
Longterm systemic changes require openminded dialogues with locals, travelers, 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.