When I first went through the planning for my trip around the subcontinent, I’d initially intended on spending December in Sri Lanka, fulfilling the dreams of 15 year-old me and volunteering with elephants. I’d pretty much organised everything except for payment, but then something made me stop and reconsider. After discovering that my chosen organisation still allowed visiting tourists to ride the elephants, and after reading several articles on the horrific practices that are used to train elephants to carry riders (seriously, for the love of God, look it up) I decided not to support that organisation and cancelled that part of my trip.
I’d also left 10 days between finishing my trekking and starting my tour in India to just do some solo travel around Nepal, but what with the fuel crisis, travel within the country had become increasingly difficult. Not wanting to waste those days but having no clue what to do, my mind wandered back to an organisation that I remembered reading about a short while before: Wildlife SOS India. I then booked a flight and had planned to arrive in a few short days, clearly freaking out the staff there but after an eventful stopover in Delhi where I almost got into a fight with a taxi driver, I got there in the end!
Wildlife SOS has 15 elephants currently in its care and they come from a number of backgrounds. Some were begging elephants that stood outside temples or walked the streets with their mahouts. One elephant at the sanctuary was morbidly obese when she first arrived because she begged outside a fast food restaurant and was fed predominantly on Indian burgers. She was that overweight that she couldn’t even walk onto the transportation truck that the sanctuary used to pick her up. Other elephants have worked in the circus, performing tricks or just standing pegged to a spot to beg for money. It’s still legal to have elephants in the circus in India, however you must have the proper documentation for them. Wildlife SOS’s four newest elephants – Macadamia, Peanut, Coconut and Walnut – all were seized from a circus because they had been obtained illegally.
All of the elephants at the sanctuary bare visible scars from their past lives – puss filled abscises and ear tears and holes from bull-hooks, broken legs, blindness in one or both eyes again from bull-hooks, and scars and hair loss from the metal frames used to give elephants rides. The sanctuary’s most famous elephant Raju even spent 50 years in spike covered chains. But despite the horrors that they’ve all been subjected to in their lives, they still have it in them to trust and cooperate with humans now that they’re being looked after.
Susie is blind in both eyes from being continuously jabbed with a bull-hook by her previous owner
Within an hour of being at the elephant sanctuary, I knew that I had come to the right place. There wasn’t a chain or bull hook in sight, and the elephants did everything on their own terms. They were also allowed to exhibit their natural behaviour and just be elephants. They go for morning and afternoon walks for several hours each. In the wild, elephants spend the majority of their time foraging so in captivity where most of the food is provided readily for them, exercise is super important. It also allows them time to interact, forage and have dust baths (which acts like a sunscreen for them). They follow the keepers voluntarily and are encouraged with bananas and peanuts as positive reinforcement.
Taking a stroll
One of the ‘herds’ on their morning walk
Back at the sanctuary in their enclosures the elephants are fed a bucket of fresh seasonal fruit each which I got to chop up with a pretty epic knife. I felt like a real life fruit ninja. I swear, the elephants here are fed so much better than most humans. When feeding the elephants, you pass them the fruit piece by piece which they grasp with the curled arm of their trunk, and roll towards their ‘fingers’ which they use to pop the fruit elegantly into their mouth which disappears with a hollow crunch. Honestly, that never got old.
Showing off my ninja knife skills
After they’ve digested all their fruit, it’s bath time which the mahouts use to check them over for scratches, ticks and to maintain their scars and feet. The elephants are hit with the hose, scrubbed all over, and asked to lie down so that their faces and backs can be reached properly. The whole time they’re being rewarded for good behaviour with biscuits and peanuts which they suck into their trunk and blow back into their mouths. You get sopping wet too, but that’s just all part of the fun.
After watching the vet perform some of his daily routine procedures, eating a bucket load of dhal, curry and chapatti under the trees for lunch, and drinking chai with the rescue dogs, the day is over and I got driven back to the volunteer house where I was staying.
On the days when I wasn’t at the elephant sanctuary, I was 15 minutes down the road at the sloth bear sanctuary. This was set up at a rehabilitation centre for rescued or surrendered bears of the dancing bear trade. The trade is made possible by poachers, who kill mother bears (and sell their body parts on the black market for Chinese medicine) in order to remove her cubs. The young bears are then pieced through the nose with a hot needle where a piece of rope is then threaded through. The teeth are then broken or pulled out so that the bear can’t bite. The nose wound never fully recovers because of the constant rubbing of the rope which the owner tugs on to control the bear. They then travel between villages making the bear ‘dance’ on its hind legs to music, sometimes for up to 10 hours a day. The bears are often malnourished and the wounds can become infected, significantly shortening its lifespan.
Wildlife SOS believes that the dancing bear trade is now effectively shut down. By working with several organisations, they were able to seize dancing bears from their past owners. They also asked owners to surrender their bears, and as compensation they were given two month’s wage, help in setting up a new job and education for their children. Now the bears will live out their days in the sanctuary.
No more dancing and free to chill all day long
While I was there, I was able to help out by building enrichment structures in the enclosures to help keep the bears’ minds active. Using logs and rope, the keepers and I built a climbing frame that the bears can climb and sleep on. I’m totally ace at knots now too.
The finished structure
I also helped clean some of the enclosures with another volunteer by scrubbing the bears’ swimming pool and clearing away large sticks from the vegetation. I like to think that I totally earnt my cup of masala chai that morning.
I also helped with the bears’ meal times by fruit ninja-ing at lunch where I got to see the bears demolish watermelon with their long bone coloured claws. Because most of them have had their teeth removed in their dancing bear years, they can’t really chew on anything too tough, so dinner is a porridge with lots of goodies mixed in. Mashing up bananas, serving up the porridge, watching hungry bears suck it up in 5 seconds like vacuum cleaners and cleaning up, took up the afternoon.
Turns out Goldilocks and the Three Bears spoke much truth… they do love porridge
Otherwise, I was shown around the sanctuary and the extension on the other side of the river, both of which are teaming with crazy wildlife. At one point I saw an emu, which I adore, although it completely threw me to see one outside of Australia. There was another moment when I turned away from a bear enclosure, only to see a hyena moving towards me. I glanced at the guys beside me and asked them what was going on. I was a little freaked out, not going to lie. They just grinned at one another and replied, “Oh that’s just Hyney. Hyney the Hyena.” And sure enough, Hyney rubbed up against my hand and flopped at my feet. It was true love for me then and there.
I also watched a number of documentaries on the elephant and dancing bear trade while at the bear centre. Seeing the horrific things that people can and have done to these animals really makes you realise how much they’ve all been through, and how lucky they are to be where they are now. Although still not lucky enough to be in the wild.
I really enjoyed my time at Wildlife SOS, being surrounded by trees and animals for a week, far away from the chaotic craziness, honking and beeping of the cities. It pretty much felt as if I was in another world.