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How Audrey found her purpose by helping to rescue captive elephants

By Jo Kingston

Wildlife tourism is big business. Worth £200bn annually, and enjoyed by thousands of travellers across the globe, the industry has a dark side, and involves over half a million captive animals living in unnatural and brutal conditions.

Ironically, many tourists who visit these attractions would describe themselves as animal lovers, unaware of the cruelty behind their holiday snaps – so working mum Audrey Gaffney has made it her mission to change this.

Three years ago Audrey co-founded Ethical Bucket List from her home in Liverpool – an organisation which aims to raise awareness, campaign for animals and inspire travellers to make ethical choices in relation to animal tourism. For such a small organisation, it is already making its voice heard, and has been quoted in national media speaking out against elephant riding and camel fighting, supporting donkey welfare and opposing unethical sanctuaries.

Here Audrey explains how she became inspired to campaign for elephants, and tells the story of the elephant that started her journey…

Elephants at Chiag Mai by @davdalfons

“I’ve always been an animal lover, but apart from signing a few petitions and some donations, I never got involved in the world of animal rights. However, one day I stumbled across a story on Facebook, titled ‘Raju the elephant cried on the day he was released from chains’. To be honest I almost scrolled past it, because I knew I would end up in tears. But when I saw a picture of this majestic creature who was traumatised and grossly underweight, I knew that I had to read it out of respect for what he’d been through.

Over the next few days I just couldn’t get this story out of my head. I learned that Raju would have been cruelly snatched from his family (his mother would either have been killed or would have spent weeks searching and crying for him) and beaten into submission.

He had been used as a street begging elephant and was sold 27 times over 50 years. He was never given food, water or shelter and had taken to eating plastic and paper. He was chained with spikes that were embedded into his ankles and kept complicit with a bullhook. I soon learned that this is the fate of most captive elephants.

I couldn’t believe the cruelty of humans, and the strength of that animal, but I also learned that he was one of the lucky ones and that there are still an estimated 1,100 captive elephants in India (begging, giving rides, or used in temples and festivals).

The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos 2015

The people who rescued Raju were a little-known charity, called Wildlife SOS. They had to seize Raju under the cover of darkness due to the risk involved. The animal’s ‘owner’ had tightened his chains to provoke a violent response to scare away the rescuers, but despite great personal danger, they were determined. Despite the 50 years of abuse Raju had endured, I have no doubt when his rescuers arrived, he recognised the difference between cruelty and compassion and what followed made this story go viral.

Up until that point I used social media very sparingly but started to follow the charity and many others. I saw a post one day in 2015 for the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos (GMFER) in Liverpool and knew I needed to go. I felt that these animals needed support, so myself and my then six-year-old son went along.

The march was part of a global campaign to raise awareness of the detrimental impact of the illegal ivory trade, I was shocked to find out that 96 elephants a day were being slaughtered for their tusks in Africa and are in danger of extinction within a generation.

The rescue of Raju the elephant

When it came time to leave I felt empty – what would I do now? What could I do? I looked down at my little boy’s hand in mine and thought ‘how do I look you in the eye in the future? How do I say to you I knew this was happening and didn’t do everything I could to stop it’? That was the moment I became an activist.

In the six years since I made this decision my life has changed beyond recognition. I met the march organiser and became a member of the team co-ordinating the GMFER. I became very involved in the campaign to ban the UK ivory trade as well as the campaigns to raise awareness of the cruelty inherent with elephants in captivity.

The work centres around drawing up campaign strategies, protesting, marching, petitioning, lobbying, letter writing, consultation responses and media networking. Eventually, I co-founded Ethical Bucket List, which is a web-based review/advice platform that encourages travellers to make better choices in relation to animals in tourism/entertainment.

‘Sometimes it’s a bit surreal, I’m a single mother who lives in Liverpool. There is so much I have done that I could not have imagined’

Sometimes it’s a bit surreal, I’m a single mother who lives in Liverpool, I never thought I’d be sitting in a parliamentary group meeting representatives from the antiques trade, attending debates in the House of Commons, being interviewed on Radio Five Live or interviewing some of the world’s most amazing animal rights heroes for our newsletter. There is so much I have done that I could not have imagined, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

The UK has now made a resolution to ban the ivory trade, so the efforts of our group and so many others have reaped rewards. There have been other successes (albeit on a smaller scale) in raising awareness for captive elephants, a complaint made to the BBC after Monty Don rode an elephant in Jaipur, India resulted in the show being removed from iPlayer, and a complaint made to ITV regarding Martin Clunes climbing up an elephant’s face resulted in him being removed from the Born Free Foundation.

As well as the successes for elephants, on a personal level some of my closest friends are members of this group (in fact I go on family holidays with Hazel Jones, the woman who organised the Liverpool march). I learnt very quickly that the people I stood beside at protests and marched with, feel exactly the way I do and it is inspiring to know that so many people will never give up on these creatures. That keeps me going and gives me faith that we will have many more successes in the future, because we are passionate and committed.

I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with so many amazing people, but I’d never actually seen an elephant in real life when I joined this campaign. I wanted to change this but could only do it in a responsible manner. There only was one option for me, two and half years after an elephant changed my life I flew to India. The first time I saw an elephant in real life was at the Wildlife SOS sanctuary in Mathura, India. I saw Raju, I saw the elephant that cried, and I saw an elephant who is finally loved, fed, sheltered, who is finally at peace.

This really epitomised how becoming an activist changed my life, and every day, every march, protest and action, makes me feel honoured to speak for our most precious wildlife.

For more information please visit the Ethical Bucket List website and sign up for the newsletter. You can contact Audrey via the website and follow the campaign on Twitter @EthicalBucketLi

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