Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I'm bombarded with motivational quotes, toddler selfies, breakfast updates and insights into the mundane. They wash through my field of view until I see something which actually holds my attention.
An image of a close friend atop an elephant in Thailand.
The title reads "Thai tourist photo op, DONE!"
Staring at the photo, my heart sinks. This is the girl, who at age 15, quit her weekend job at a junior farm petting zoo because she felt that the animals were being exploited.
Funny isn't it? She wasn't willing to take a pay check in an industry exploiting native wildlife for financial gain, yet she is happy to fund an industry abroad offering essentially the same experience.
Elephants are wild animals; they belong in the savannas, forests, deserts and marshes of Africa and Asia, not an enclosure in the British Midlands or in chains with a tourist atop their back.
Captured as infants or born into captivity, the elephants of Thailand's lucrative tourism trade suffer. There's really no other word to describe it. Broken of their spirit in an effort to domesticate them, they are tied up, starved and beaten to within an inch of their life so that they may be controlled and offer visiting tourists what has become a quintessential Thai experience.
With the country's capital ranked as the world's most visited city, tourism dollars are flooding through areas of low socioeconomic status and the locals are doing all they can to get their share.
Once highly revered and domesticated for work and warfare, elephants have long been subject to exploitation. From its origins in the East, the skill of domestication slowly spread to the West. Remarkably the first recorded elephant in northern Europe was brought by Emperor Claudius during the Roman invasion of Britain in A.D. 43.
While the practice dates back thousands of years, its inception was at a time when the estimated elephant population was hundreds of thousands. Today we live in a world where the possibility of extinction is not just a notion but an imminent reality.
Sadly those making a living from offering tourists the chance to ride atop these magnificent creatures care little for the long-term effects and only for the short-term rewards.
A fully grown elephant can carry up to 150 kilograms on its back. At 1.7m and 71kg, I would say I'm pretty average in size for a fully grown adult, and that doesn't leave much scope for a 100kg + Howdah (saddle) and the mahout (elephant trainer) who rides on the elephant's neck. This combined weight is enough to cause painful sores and irreversible damage to the elephant's spine.
Riding an elephant in Thailand is a direct contribution to a heinous cycle of abuse which occurs throughout the country. Those who pay money for this experience are effectively making a financial vote in support of this exploitation.
Ethical, sustainable, eco-friendly. These are all terms banded about by tour operators and tourism boards but what do they actually mean? What constitutes ethical travel and how can we strive to practice it ourselves?
I recently asked some of my fellow travel bloggers, "What does sustainable travel mean to you?"
For some of these seasoned world travelers sustainable travel is about supporting local enterprises, understanding where tourism dollars are going to end up, and how profits will be channelled back into the communities they visit.
Others believe it's a much more complex balance between cultural respect and understanding, researching travel plans and supporting businesses that are mindful of the impact they have on the local environment.
Whatever the terms "ethical" and "sustainable" mean to you, no doubt you'll agree that the morals one holds at home should remain the morals one holds abroad. Tourism can destroy and extinguish but it can also serve to support and regenerate.
For the elephants of Thailand there is hope.
That hope comes in the form of the Save Elephant Foundation. Founder Lek Chailert and her team at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai offer sanctuary to abused Asian elephants. They heal their wounds, treat the mental scars of domestication and provide a safe environment in which the animals can recover. Rescuing domesticated elephants from within the tourism industry, the foundation is a light in the darkness for Thailand's gentle giants.
However Lek's orphanage has reached capacity. She does not have the facilities or the land available to rescue any more animals.
Having seen firsthand the impact unethical tourism has had on Thailand's elephant population, a team of travel bloggers have come together in support of the charity.
Working hard to raise much needed funds so that Lek and the Save Elephant Foundation may continue to pick up the pieces of a local industry devoid of ethics, they have put together a digital Travel Blogging Calendar and are offering those who donate the chance to win a trip to Thailand.
Channelling 100 percent of every dollar raised into the charity, this is a grassroots project which packs punch.
Partnering with travel giant Flight Network and niche adventure travel operator Where Sidewalks End, the team behind the Travel Blogging Calendar are offering one lucky winner USD$2,000 towards return flights to Thailand and an eight-day, seven-night tour for two including transport, hotels, city tours and a visit to the Save Elephant Foundation.
For those who support the project an inspired almanac of travel opportunities and inspiration will also be available to them on weekly basis. Rousing articles covering religious festivals, holidays and celebrations taking place across the globe every seven days, will be published on a purpose-built blog packed full of exclusive content available only to those charitable souls who donate.
If your plans for 2014 incorporate travel, take a moment to research the ethos and ethics of the operators with whom you make your bookings, and spare a thought for those caught up in an industry exploiting the world that you long to explore.
To support the Save Elephant Foundation and "travel every week" with the team behind this digital calendar with a difference, please visit the Travel Blogging Calendar website.
All images in this article used with the permission of Jeremy Foster.
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