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.

Her tale of turning youthful wanderlust into animal-saving action as the founder of Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary> (BLES) in northern Thailand topped our rankings this year. One might say that Connor’s work to protect abused Asian pachyderms packs a punch.

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. 

Related: Meet the Rest of Our Travelers of the Year

What — or who — inspires you to travel with purpose? Share your thoughts with the Intelligent Travel community by leaving a comment:


  1. Heny
    Lima, Perú
    February 2, 2014, 4:10 pm

    Thanks Katherine and congratulations.

  2. Tracy Hanley
    Albany, NY
    February 2, 2014, 10:27 am

    Katherine, congratulations! You so deserve this award! We need to bring the abuses of all animals to the worlds attention! Social media does indeed help to educate people about animal suffering. It is also a great way to put pressure on law enforcement to help us take steps to end the cruelty to animals.I too am animal advocate and wildlife rehabilitator, trying my best to educate my friends and aquaintances on animals. Thank you for all you are doing!

  3. Bi Veronica
    Bamenda, Cameroon, C. Africa
    January 23, 2014, 11:29 am

    Thanks to the early travelers who inspired and encouraged travelling till date. Thanks for their discoveries which have gone a long way to make the world what it is today.
    But above all thanks to purposeful travers and CONGRATULATIONS to you Kathrine for the wonderful work of love from the heart. COURAGE!!1

  4. Zee
    January 1, 2014, 3:45 pm

    Congratulations Katherine, you wholeheartedly deserved to win! You are a true inspiration not only to me, but to many many other people.

  5. Renee Stonyer
    November 11, 2013, 1:11 am

    Thank you for helping all those animals and ending their suffering, helping those who cannot speak for themselfs and giving them a chance at a free life with hope, congrats keep up the fantastic work your a very special person!!

  6. Lisa Markuson
    November 7, 2013, 3:01 pm

    Free Get Up and Ride bike tour for this inspiring traveler next time she is in NYC! Awesome work!

  7. Glorious Nature
    November 7, 2013, 6:35 am

    If we do not die in an accident but die naturally, it is unlikely on our deathbeds we will be thinking about what we owned or what we wore or people we disliked or…….

    We can die contentedly thinking about the suffering we stopped and the quality of life we gave other living beings that they NEVER would have had without our caring.
    No nicer thoughts to have on ones deathbed.

  8. Elizabeth Balbin
    Coconut Grove, FL USA
    November 3, 2013, 10:44 am

    What a wonderful story and thank goodness for people like Katherine Connor who opened her heart to such beautiful creatures. Most importantly – a lesson to all of us about the impact each of us can have in our world when we stand up to change. One small positive action can have such a wonderful, ripple effect. Thank you for this!

  9. Becky Padmore
    London, UK
    November 3, 2013, 7:16 am

    Katherine does so much to help the plight of elephants and other animals in Thailand, a well deserved win!

  10. Patricia Hughes
    Albany, NY USA
    November 3, 2013, 5:46 am

    I’m so glad Katherine was recognized for the work she is doing and for her insight that all of us are capable, in our own way, to build a better world for all creatures even the human kind who travel this earth.