People want to know if I’m afraid — afraid of being alone on the road, in foreign countries, pursuing my dream of a world free of wildlife trafficking. To me, fear is irrelevant; no one asked me to fight this fight, no one pays me. This is the choice I’ve made for my life. Far more frightening is not listening to my calling and not taking action. Yes, sometimes I’m scared, but I would never let that stop me.
For the past five years, I’ve spent much of my time in southeast Asia, mostly in Laos, living on a motorcycle and fighting the illegal wildlife trade. I’m one of the few existing optimistic conservationists, creating and implementing wildlife and environmental education for children in remote and vulnerable villages within nationally protected lands on the border of Laos and Vietnam, an area rife with poaching.
Once I was a child, I have felt more strongly connected to animals than to people. I dreamed of the rain forests in Brazil and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and someday I hoped to decipher the language of humpback whales. By the time I was eight I knew I wanted to be a biologist, and I never wavered.
Unfortunately, I loathed humans for a very long time. I felt a deep despair for our treatment of animals, the planet, and each other. I felt completely overwhelmed by the grief and suffering that permeates humanity. By my mid – 20s, I saw my disdain for people in a mirror; you can’t hate your own species without directing those feelings inward. In the darkest part of my life, I realized that I needed to forgive myself and other humans for our imperfections. I decided to work toward something I believed would positively impact the planet.
It feels like every step I took in life led me here, from my relationships with the many animals my family kept — our home was “the neighborhood zoo” — to volunteering in a wolf sanctuary and wildlife rehabilitation centers. Wounded animals find me, and for them I’m willing to give up my belongings, keeping only what I can strap to a motorcycle, and to withstand uncomfortable situations in these remote, wild places.
Laos is less developed than Thailand, its roads untamed, its lands sparsely inhabited, its small rural villages brimming with charm. In the south, you find ancient ruins, massive cave systems, coffee plateaus, and raging rivers that carve out some 4,000 islands. In the north are lush mountains, dramatic karst formations, river villages with homemade whisky served in bamboo shot glasses, indigo-dyed stories woven into textiles, ornate temples, and mineral-filled waterfalls colored a luminous, opaque aquamarine. You also see crews working to clear bombs and hear explosions in the distance.
Many are not aware that Laos is the most bombed country on Earth, per capita; during the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped more than 270 million bombs on Laos — equivalent to a plane full of bombs dropping every eight minutes for nine years straight. A third of those bombs have yet to explode and lurk within the landscape, shifting every monsoon season, endangering the lives of all who work the land and light fires to boil their water and cook their food, not to mention the curious children who see something shiny in the earth and dig it up. Sadly, there are over 300 unexploded ordnance (UXO) incidents per year, and 40 percent of the victims are children.
Additionally, Laos is one of the world’s few remaining communist nations, landlocked by five neighbors: China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. With widespread corruption and porous borders, this makes Laos, one of the poorest countries in East Asia, an ideal portal for wildlife traffickers.
I found myself in the limestone forests of central Laos, near the border of Vietnam, bringing wildlife education outreach programs to the remote and vulnerable village schools in and around Nakai – Nam Theun. It was here that I partnered with Project Anoulak, a conservation organization working to protect some of the most endangered animals on the planet. Riding a Kawasaki KLX from the Thai border east across the narrowest section of Laos, I’d routinely pass clandestine trade routes and wildlife trafficking hot spots, including a tiger farm outside of Thakhek where trespassers will be shot on sight.
When I talk to kids and their parents, they’re often unaware that the animals in their forests exist nowhere else on Earth. There’s the critically endangered red-shanked douc langur, a large primate cloaked in vivid colors: white forearms, red legs, black-gloved hands and feet, a gray potbelly, a long white tail, a white mouth and nose, a red mask, and powder-blue eyelids. Also living in this forest — never seen in the wild by researchers and only known to science since 1992 — is one of the last large mammal discoveries of our time, the saola. It’s an elusive, antelope-like ungulate known as the “Asian Unicorn,” with long, sharp horns and a polite demeanor. The forest is also home to multiple species of otter, as well as the most trafficked mammal on the planet, the pangolin — an anteater prized for its meat and beautiful scales.
It’s important to explain to children that these creatures have incredibly complex lives, and that people around the world are fighting for their survival. There’s a lot of hope wrapped up in the wide-eyed children I teach; I see their compassion and curiosity when I show them high-quality photos of these animals for the first time. Education is a long-term investment, which, at the current rates of poaching and habitat destruction, may never pay off. Despite this, education is absolutely essential, especially in conjunction with law enforcement, capacity-building, and scientific research. Who knows what could come out of sparking a child’s interest, intrigue, or empathy for wildlife? I know how it affected me.
As a young girl I dreamed of faraway places, helping animals wherever I went. I never imagined it would be real, riding alone on a motorcycle, free from the constraints and comforts of a normal, rooted life. When I see animals suffering in cages, birds that can’t experience the greatness of their own wings, I feel broken. But I can’t look away. I believe we are all connected and we are all truly wild, and what I’m doing is my way of helping more people understand the challenges — and potential — we face with wildlife conservation. I am a humble window into this world, honoring the wild on Earth and within us all.LEARN MORE ABOUT MOTOGYPSY
MANIS JAVANICA, ASIA
The pangolin is the only scaled mammal in existence, with very sharp, plate-like keratin scales covering its body like a pine cone. These nocturnal wonders are the most trafficked mammal on Earth, and therefore critically endangered—voraciously consumed in China and Vietnam for their meat and scales.
NYCTICEBUS COUCANG, SOUTHEAST ASIA
The slow loris is the only venomous primate on the planet. When threatened, they lick glands on their inner elbows, which secrete a toxin. The slow loris clasps both paws above its head in a diamond-shaped, cobra-like posture, drawing the toxin into their needle-like teeth to bite their perpetrator. Since people like to keep these animals as illegal pets, the vulnerable slow loris population is in steep decline; the owners rip out the animal’s teeth to prevent their deadly bites. Janelle once survived a bite from a loris, trying to protect it from an angry dog. Luckily, the animal must not have licked its elbows before biting.
RED SHANKED DOUC LANGUR
PYGATHRIX NEMAEUS, SOUTHEAST ASIA
Existing only in Laos and Vietnam, the Douc’s habitat was heavily bombed and gassed with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. These endangered “old world” monkeys only eat leaves; the fermentation process by which they break down the cellulose in the leaves gives them a pot-bellied appearance. They are hunted and trafficked for their meat and traditional Chinese “medicinal” uses.