Forget talking to the animals, Niamh Lovelock is taking her Bachelor of Music major in Voice all the way to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand where she plans to sing to them.
The University of Waikato alumna will take up her dream role at the Kwan Jai Elephant Foundation (KJEF) in Kanchanaburi, due to be built later this year by mother and son founders and trustees Viv and Jack Lanting.
While the Lantings search for the right piece of land to house the $700,000 sanctuary, Niamh’s busy researching music therapy for animals. She’ll explore the techniques further when she starts working with mistreated elephants rescued from tourist traps such as riding camps, street begging and circuses, and the illegal logging industry.
“Elephants that have come from particularly damaging environments will be wary of humans because of the mistreatment they’ve come to expect,” Niamh says. “Music therapy has proven to be effective before so, as crazy as it sounds, my degree will be put to good use in a different way.”
Niamh first discovered her talent for classical singing while attending Campion College in hometown Gisborne. She took lessons with vocal tutor Gavin Maclean, developed her craft and laid claim to a long list of musical achievements. Keen to pursue a career in performance she was drawn to the degree programme offered at the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Waikato. The option to study under the tutelage of Glenese Blake, who Niamh had worked with at the New Zealand Singing School, was a major drawcard. Receiving a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship sealed the deal.
Despite enjoying her studies, nearing the end of her second year of study Niamh began to second guess her career goals. At the end of that year she travelled to Thailand and spent a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, a sanctuary for rescued elephants in need of rehabilitation. Niamh cites the experience as life-changing and one that ignited her passion for elephant conservation.
“I knew whatever I did with my life I wanted to help in some way. I recognised that skills gained through my time at University could benefit this cause.”
Returning to New Zealand and her music studies, when Niamh learnt of Te Awamutu teen Jack Lanting’s mission to rescue and rehabilitate elephants, it was a lightbulb moment. An email to the Lantings led to a firm friendship, eventually resulting in the job offer that will see her relocate to Thailand in September to help with the sanctuary build.
Once built, and when she’s not serenading pachyderms, Niamh will implement and oversee the volunteer programmes run at KJEF in her role as Volunteer and Education Programme Manager. She’ll identify assignments that provide meaningful work and tailor programmes to the needs of the volunteer group and the sanctuary. Granted, it’s a departure from a career in classical performance but Niamh credits the change in direction helping to ease the anxiety and depression she’d struggled with for nearly four years. The 22-year-old says broadening her knowledge of animal conservation, and in the process aspiring to a new career, helped her overcome mental barriers, and gave her clarity and purpose.
“Pretty much everyone in my life knew me as a singer, especially in my hometown,” she says. “I remember being afraid that I’d disappoint people if I didn’t end up with a successful singing career. But everyone’s on their own journey so I had to do what made me happy.”
Along with her proud family, two of Niamh’s biggest supporters are Glenese Blake and Hillary Programme Coordinator, Greg O’Carroll.
“Their mentorship and guidance constantly inspired me to follow my dreams, whatever they may be,” says Niamh. “Even with this shift in career outcome, I learnt so much through my degree. Landing my dream job is surreal and I can’t wait for the next step in the journey.”