Hannah, Jody and Rob recently spent two weeks volunteering at the Wildlife SOS bear and elephant sanctuaries near Agra. In their blog, they explain why a volunteering holiday is an adventure worth taking and why a visit to the elephant sanctuary is the perfect day out for tourists and locals alike.
Like many people, we bonded over our love for animals. For a while now, we’ve been educating ourselves wherever possible about the increasing risks to animals in the wild such as elephants, bears, rhinos and big cats. One of the biggest black-market industries in the world is wildlife trafficking, where animals are hunted and sold for tourist attractions, medicine, ivory and fur. Also, like many people we have felt helpless when considering the scale of the problem, and that’s when we came across Wildlife SOS.
Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani founded Wildlife SOS over twenty years ago, after harbouring a dream of rescuing captive wild animals in India. Since then, they have built dedicated sanctuaries for sloth bears and elephants and recently opened the very first elephant hospital in India to worldwide acclaim. Wildlife SOS welcomes volunteers from around the world to spend a day, week or even longer caring for the animals and helping the charity run its busy daily schedule.
Volunteering… on holiday?
Although we had no idea what to expect, we were excited to arrive at the volunteer house on a Sunday afternoon, a 4 hour drive from New Delhi International Airport. Wildlife SOS were kind enough to send a taxi driver to pick us up, so after a fun (and unsuccessful) few minutes trying to get money from the airport ATM, we could at least experience the sights and sounds of the journey with some air con!
When we arrived at the house we were greeted by the lovely housekeeping staff who made sure our rooms were ready and we had everything we needed to settle in. Of course, we immediately set about meeting the neighbourhood street dogs and made sure to feed and play with them and help to medicate them when needed before bed. (This became a nightly ritual and a huge part of the trip for us).
The Wildlife SOS staff have taken care of these dogs for years and provide food for them, using their sanctuary vet if needed to ensure the dogs are fit enough and can fend for themselves on the street. There are several packs who navigate life as some of the more privileged street dogs in the area.
Monday morning and breakfast was at 8am (home cooked and very tasty), then it was straight to work. We bundled into one of the Wildlife SOS cars with the other volunteers and off we went, navigating some of India’s craziest roads on our short journey to meet bears first… passing cows, goats and dogs as they mingled with the people who live in the surrounding areas between the house and the sanctuary land.
Day one was a morning at the bear enclosure and an afternoon at the Elephant sanctuary, meaning we got a full induction and tour before we started work. At lunch we were shown documentaries detailing firstly the work done by Wildlife SOS in association with International Animal Rescue to eradicate the dancing bear tradition in India and then describing how WSOS rescued the Elephants who had suffered so much abuse at the hands of the tourist trade, amongst other things.
They were INCREDIBLY hard to watch but we are glad we took the time (and emotional energy!) to view them. ‘God in shackles’ is one you will find available online, alongside the BBC’s ‘Saving India’s dancing bears’.
For the next 10 days we spent alternate shifts at the bear and elephant sanctuaries with the other volunteers, undertaking essential tasks such as chopping fruit, preparing porridge with honey for the bears (it’s true, bears really do love honey!), cleaning enclosures, painting, gardening (take thick gloves!) and of course, building enrichment structures. Although you can’t touch the bears (they are cute but can be pretty feisty!) you can observe them from close proximity – which is mesmerising. Despite all the love, care and nurturing they now receive, the bears are damaged by their past lives of abuse and many can be seen swaying from side to side as they would have as a dancing bear, standing with their Kalandar, tethered on the street by a muzzle harness causing constant open wounds, waiting for the next performance to begin, driven by excruciating pain. Each time we arrived to see them in their new home, we marveled at the bravery of these amazing creatures. Thank goodness there is no more pain and a life of just honey and enrichments ahead of them.
Building an enrichment is a real test of your creativity and team work, and it’s great to see the bears climb and play all over your finished product!
The elephant sanctuary is also a short drive from the volunteer house. They live in enclosures of two and spend their days taking long walks with their friends and keepers (‘mahouts’). When they aren’t walking they can be found paddling in their pools, eating, sleeping and generally being pampered by the staff and volunteers. It’s hard work preparing their fodder, especially in the searing heat (it was 40 degrees when we visited), but the Volunteer coordinators took great care of us and what better way to cool down than to bathe one of the gorgeous elephants. They truly are gentle giants and to look into their eyes is a very, very humbling experience.
Saying goodbye to the elephants, bears, street dogs and to the Wildlife SOS staff and fellow volunteers who had become friends, we felt deflated that our experience was over, but determined to continue to support this cause and others like it when we got home by providing support as UK volunteers, advocating ethical tourism options, fundraising and by building awareness of everything this charity fights for.
What an amazing, emotional and inspiring experience; our volunteering holiday was a trip of a lifetime and a great way to support the ongoing conservation of some of India’s most beautiful and endangered animals. Plus, we met some wonderful people who we will forever feel bonded to. What are you waiting for?!
Other ways to see the charity at work
Volunteering isn’t the only ethical way to see these amazing animals. Day visitors also get a wonderful experience and are taken on personalised, guided two-hour tour of the sanctuary. They learn about the history of the animals and how they came to be rescued. Some of the stories, such as Raju, who cried when he was rescued after 70 years as a riding elephant will move, astound, and ultimately inspire you. Visitors have a truly unique opportunity to be close to the elephants, feed and walk with them.
It’s important to note that Wildlife SOS isn’t just dedicated to rescuing animals, but also supports the communities who have traditionally relied on using them for their livelihoods, such as the ‘Kalandars’, who have kept dancing bears for over 400 years. They fund the Kalandar children to go to school and offer advice and financial support to the adults to help them set up their own businesses. Through this continued, mindful effort to encourage the community to better themselves, Wildlife SOS has made an incredible difference in the lives of hundreds of Kalandar people and future generations.
In addition, each sanctuary has a gift shop selling items, hand-made by the Kalandar women. The women are trained by Wildlife SOS in traditional Indian crafts and you will find the shop bursting with beautiful, colourful and intricate trinkets and mementoes. You even have the opportunity of owning a truly original piece of art: an elephant-footprint-on-canvas, created by the incredibly talented residents themselves!
There are approximately 17,000 captive elephants in the world, and around 4,000 of those are in India. For centuries, these majestic creatures have been used for travel, lodging, entertainment, begging, and even meat. Nowadays, they are mainly used in religious ceremonies, in circuses, and for tourist rides. And, while they may appear compliant, the elephants involved in such activities are always subject to terrible and sometimes fatal conditions, controlled through pain and abuse. If you see a person riding an elephant, you can be sure it was tamed in this same barbaric way.
The Bear Necessities
Bears in Asia are mainly used for bile farming, but in India they’ve been used as dancing bears for around 400 years. All of the 200 adorable sloth bears at the sanctuary are former dancing bears. Incredibly, the practice has been completely eradicated in India by Wildlife SOS through offering the Kalandars training and jobs at the facility.