I could smell the musty scent of the red earth. There was no breeze and it was a few hours before sunset. With every step that Maya and Phoolkali took, small fragments of earth flew up leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.
The dust settled on my clothes, my skin, my hair. I walked beside Maya, patting her trunk with the palm of my hand as gently as I could.
She was tall and statuesque, one of the most friendly and photogenic elephants at the Wildlife SOS’ Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC) in Mathura.
My child, Elijah, flanked her other side, feeding her bananas every few steps or so. At one point, Maya stepped off the path as if intending to go a different way. Elijah gently guided her back, tempting her with her favourite treats.
“A mahout-in-training,” proclaimed the mahout who accompanied and filmed us while walking backwards, which was quite a feat.
Phoolkali, the other elephant, was a few steps behind us. We walked for almost an hour. The ellies needed their evening exercise. It was tiring, yet exhilarating.
It was nothing less than a privilege and humbling, to have walked beside these majestic beings and connected with them in a way that not many humans get to experience.
A connection that was natural, not forced. Born of mutual respect, not pain or fear. In an environment where they were loved and cherished, by people who had rescued them from horrific circumstances and given them the care they deserved.
No more would they have to take humans on rides, suffer undignified performances in a circus, be prodded with bullhooks, imprisoned in chains, or forced to stand in solitary confinement, deprived of the company of other friendly elephants, living their lives in pain and neglect.
At the ECCC, their physical and emotional scars can heal at last. They are lovingly bathed, fed their favourite treats, smell the sweet scent of freedom, and enjoy the company of a herd of friendly elephants in huge pens (to keep them from wandering off to the human settlements nearby).
They can sleep on the soft earth, play in a pool built just for them and live a life of comfort and dignity.
Why I Wanted To Visit Wildlife SOS
I first heard about the organisation when I watched its co-founder, Kartick Satyanaran’s TED Talk on how Wildlife SOS launched and successfully implemented a campaign to rescue every “dancing” bear in India.
I grew up in India at a time when we would, quite often, see dancing bears on the roads and never think twice about how much torture and suffering they must have endured becoming a source of entertainment for us ignorant humans.
So, I was touched by the efforts that Wildlife SOS had made to put an end to this cruel, centuries-old practice. Even better, they achieved this without punishing the practitioners – the Kalandar community – and instead, helped them find alternative sources of livelihood via the Kalandar Rehabilitation Program.
I started donating a small amount to Wildlife SOS every month – my way of assuaging the guilt I felt about the cruelty with which my species had treated these blameless creatures for centuries.
I remember visiting circuses that exhibited wild animals as a child and felt ashamed of it, even though I was a child and knew no better at the time.
According to The Dodo, there are some 3,500 captive elephants in India and the majority of them are used for elephant rides by Western tourists.
They are kept in deplorable conditions: Walking on hot, tar roads. Trained with spiked chains and “ankush” (bullhooks). No veterinary care. Dehydration, cracked feet and abscesses. Being shackled for long periods in the heat.
But, when you know better, you do better. In the internet era, there’s no excuse for ignorance. Animal cruelty is a complete no-no today.
We’re part of a more aware and enlightened society than that of our grandparents, and it’s up to us to undo some of the damage and the cruel practices that continue till today in some parts of the world. If you love elephants, refuse to ride them or watch them perform.
Getting To The ECCC
It was in November 2016 that we visited the ECCC at Mathura, about 57 kilometres from Agra. As a visitor, Wildlife SOS can help arrange transport to and from Agra, as long as you let them know in advance.
Of course, you must pay for it. As a charitable organisation, they cannot offer freebies. They also provide accommodation in Agra, but I learned that only after I’d booked my trip.
At the ECCC, visitors get to meet the elephants, learn their stories and the circumstances they were rescued from, help with bathing them and, like we did, accompany them on their evening walk.
When I followed Wildlife SOS on Facebook, I read about their efforts to rescue every circus elephant in India, and to create a “Field Of Dreams.”
This large swathe of land nearby has a wide river flowing through it and is surrounded by thickets and trees where every elephant can roam freely and live in as natural an environment as possible. But the funding to purchase the land is lacking.
Meeting The Elephants
As we entered and signed in, we could see the elephants in their enclosures. I had known the names they were given – Suzy, Sita, Rhea, Peanut, Coconut, Lakhi, Asha, Raju – from the posts on the Wildlife SOS Facebook page. They already felt like familiar friends, but I was going to get to know them better.
We met Chanchal, who was rescued in June 2012, after she got into a terrible road accident in Noida. She was severely injured with bruises on her body and a cut on her right knee. She was unable to bend one knee possibly due to a ligament tear.
Initially, she would keep to herself and wouldn’t even interact with the other elephants. It took her approximately a year to get over her traumatic experience as a begging elephant and get comfortable with her new found freedom.
Chanchal means “mischievous” and she certainly lives up to her name with her daily antics, winning hearts every day. Around 21 years old, she loves playing in the water and spends a lot of time throwing mud on herself.
Over the years, she has formed a close bond with another Ellie called Bijli and together they enjoy munching on fruits and treats and going on long walks around the centre. While we were watching the mahouts lovingly bathe and scrub down Chanchal, Maya came up to inspect me with her trunk.
Maya was rescued in November 2010, from a circus where she was forced to work for entertainment and then chained at the end of the day. When she first arrived at ECCC, Maya was really underfed and withdrawn. Possibly the most heart-warming part of Maya’s recovery was her socialization with Phoolkali.
Today, 42-year old Maya is a happy and healthy elephant, enjoying her new life of freedom. She has a peaceful demeanour that can put anyone near her at ease and is best friends with the equally regal Phoolkali.
We also met Sita, who was rescued in November 2015 after nearly five decades in captivity. She was riddled with severe and chronic ailments, such as painfully damaged footpads and cuticles with severe abscesses, and to make it worse, had severe psychological trauma.
Sita was nearly 60 years old and her pitiable condition was a testament to her years of mishandling and improper care.
Her preliminary veterinary assessment on arrival at ECCC showed that she was suffering from a condition known as ankylosis in the joints of both her forelimbs, one of which had incurred a fracture during her time in captivity, and that had never been allowed to heal.
Because of these problems, she was not able to lie down and rest properly in more than a year. At the ECCC, Sita had a chance to ease the stress on her legs by lounging in the pool and getting regular pedicures and foot care. When we met her, she was enjoying a foot bath with epsom salts and intensive treatment for her feet.
In April 2017, Sita passed away. I was glad to have met her and known that she received the love and care she so deserved in her senior years.
Most of the elephants we saw, in fact, had severe injuries when they came to the ECCC, and were still being treated for all sorts of problems, the most common being abscesses in their feet after being forced to stand on hard ground without any rest for long periods, or from walking on hot, tar roads.
We also met Rhea, a former circus elephant who was trapped along with Sita and another elephant called Mia, under miserable conditions – a sisterhood strengthened only further by their shared experiences of pain. They were reunited at the ECCC in April 2016, and Rhea began her journey to recovery.
54-year old Rhea was riddled with ailments. Her feet were in atrocious conditions, with deep painful cracks running through her swollen soles. Her nails were cracked and her cuticles overgrown, evidence of the neglect she had been subjected to all those years.
In the days since her rescue, Rhea’s spirit won the hearts of everyone at ECCC, and she slowly began making friends with her keepers and the other elephants. She is especially fond of her neighbours, Maya and Phoolkali, and often stands squeaking at them while eating her meal of green fodder.
But the ellies that stole my heart were Peanut and Coconut, the babies of the “nut herd”, who we caught munching on their sugarcane.
In April 2015, Wildlife SOS rescued four elephants from a circus in Maharashtra. Called Macadamia, Walnut, Coconut and Peanut, the “nut herd” had suffered for years as performing elephants.
When they were not being exploited for the amusement of the circus audience, they were made to spend long hours standing in filth and restrained painfully by tight ropes around their legs.
Today, 8-year old Peanut and 14-year old Coconut have made remarkable progress. Both of them are absolute delights to watch as they follow the other big elephants around the facility, occasionally poking at them playfully with their trunks.
They are part of Asha’s adoptive herd and, being the youngest, received immense love and care from the older elephants. Peanut loves keeping everyone on their toes with her energy and excitement. She runs around, tosses about her tyre and spends hours playing in the pool.
Coconut spends her time gorging on delicious fruit treats, playing with hanging enrichments feeders, going on long walks and lounging in her pool with Peanut.
The Agra Bear Rescue Facility
After a rewarding afternoon watching the mahouts bathe and feed the elephants, we visited Wildlife SOS’s Agra Bear Rescue Facility, the largest Sloth Bear Rescue Facility in the world.
Established in 1999, it currently houses around 200 sloth bears, and other species of wildlife, in large forested enclosures with ponds and shady trees. You can contact Wildlife SOS for a personal guided experience at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility.
Right now Wildlife SOS has over 20 elephants, 300 bears, and 30 leopards that depend on them every day. Having donors gives them the confidence to know that they can feed them and meet their medical needs well into the future. You can donate to Wildlife SOS and support their work.
Volunteering With Wildlife SOS
If you volunteer with Wildlife SOS, you’ll have the unique opportunity to work alongside these incredible animals and the people who care for them.
You’ll get to spend a few days enjoying the opportunity to put up hammocks and enrichments for the bears, visit with the elephants, and help with their feeding or with giving them a bath.
In addition, you’ll get to stay in a beautiful area of the sanctuary and the fees you pay for your stay and accommodation go directly to the Centre, providing a critical source of funding for future work.
Imagine the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to make a positive impact on their lives. What more could a responsible tourist ask for?
Find out who else offers ethical elephant experiences in Asia.