During our visit to Agra last weekend, we also visited the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre of Wildlife SOS – which is only 1 hour away from Agra. We read about the centre on National Geographic, and were immediately enthusiastic! So we booked a day and a time-slot, and drove off in excitement.
The centre warmly welcomed us with tea and cookies. We were the only visitors at that time, so we received a private tour. The guide started with an introduction about how Wildlife SOS started in 1995 with their activities to eradicate the abusive practice of ‘dancing’ Sloth bears in India. Since the start they have rescued over 600 bears and in 2009 they rescued the last ‘dancing’ Sloth bear in India. Soon they also started rescuing elephants, as these majestic animals are still widely used for circuses, manual labour, performances, processions, entertainment and street begging. However, rescuing elephants is much more difficult, as many of their owners have official documents showing that they are the legitimate owners of the elephant – something that owners of bears did not have. Even if an elephant dies, owners will keep using the old papers for a new elephant which they poach in the wild. They try to eradicate this practice by chipping all the elephants. However, you will still see many elephants in India, especially in tourist industries or for traditional and ceremonial purposes. So besides trying to remove heavily abused elephants from their owners into the sanctuaries, they also offer medical services and training on humane treatment to elephant owners.
Wildlife SOS has two elephant centres: one near Mathura/Agra, and one near Yamunanagar (Huryana). Mathura is the biggest one, where they house 21 elephants, while at the other centre they are housing 4 elephants so far. The youngest elephant is 7 years old, while the oldest is already 65! All elephants in these centres are heavily abused by being neglected sufficient water, food or rest, and are suffering from untreated wounds from beatings or accidents, legs which have been broken and not healed in the right way, blindness, and mental traumas. Some elephants have even been drugged in their past in order to make them behave calm and behave well. Elephants, especially the female ones, are very social animals and normally roam in groups, so you can imagine how traumatic it is when they are being held alone for decades. In the centres they learn again how to socialize, play, roam around freely and bath, and they receive enough food, good medical care and lots of love and positive attention. Although Wildlife SOS tries to teach the elephants natural behaviour, these elephants will never be able to live in nature again as they will not survive that.
Besides rescuing bears and elephants, Wildlife SOS also tries to protect other animals in danger, such as leopards, camels, horses, snakes, donkeys, monkeys. People can call Wildlife SOS at all time if they find an animal in severe conditions. Rescuing all these animals is not an easy task, as their owners are often dependent upon the income the animals generate. Therefore, when Wildlife SOS takes an animal into their centre, they also help the families to generate income in a different – animal friendly – way.
After the introduction it was time to meet the female elephants! There were several new elephants among the male group, and because they have severe mental traumas they do not want to expose those to people too much.
If you are lucky enough during your visit you can help the care takers with activities like bathing or walking, however during our visit the elephants just received their food and they do not want to be bothered then (how similar to human beings! 😉 ). We visited all the female elephants and got to know the story of each one of them. We’ll share some of them with you to have an impression.
Lakhi (61) has worked as a begging elephant for years, whereby she walked many hours a day on hot tarred roads. Due to malnutrition she became blind to both eyes. Suzy is with 65 the eldest elephant. She spent years in a circus, where she was abused, beaten, and forced to perform painful tricks. Asha (47) used to ferry tourists up the steep slope of Amber Fort in Jaipur. She still suffers an old leg injury that was never properly treated. When her owners sold her because of the leg injury, she became a begging elephant until 2015 when she was rescued by Wildlife SOS. Right now, these oldies love to roam around slowly, but they also spent their days together with the energetic young ones Coco (14) & Peanut (7), who both used to work in a circus.
One of the saddest stories is the one from Sita, who has been working in a circus for many years. On the picture you can see that both her front legs are deformed, which is a result of cracked toenails, damaged foot-pads, and a fracture that never had a chance to heal well. She is in a constant pain, and therefore Wildlife SOS tried to create some more comfort for her with ‘cushions’, so she can disburden her legs by letting her head rest on something else. She used to do this on the backs of her friends Mia and Rhea, but as they got annoyed by that she is now taken apart unfortunately. Because of her legs, Sita cannot lay down and she will just take short naps while standing. However, after several months of standing with pain Sita will be so tired that she will spontaneously fall down and sleep for hours. When that happens the crew of Wildlife SOS will let her sleep as long as she needs, and when she wakes up they use a crane to help her getting up her feet again. We asked whether it would be better to put an animal like Sita who is in so much pain to sleep. The guide said that this is ofcourse a very debatable subject, but explained that an elephant who is not willing to live anymore will quit eating. Therefore, they do not put elephants to sleep as long as they are eating their food.
Edit: in the end of April we received the message that Sita has unfortunately passed away due to exhaustion caused by her immobility and inability to rest.
Mia and Rhea, who both used to work for the same circus, where they were neglected rest, food and good living conditions. Especially Mia’s legs were severely damaged and she suffered from many abscesses.
Phoolkali and Mila, they used to beg and perform in a circus. Especially Phoolkali had a difficult time walking when she came to live in the centre, but now she enjoys long walks with the other elephants!
“Mischievous” Chanchal, who was teasing us with water from her watering trough. The holes in her ears are a result of a hook that was used to control her. Chanchal and another elephant were being smuggled in the middle of the night in Delhi, when they were hit by a truck. The other elephant was killed immediately, and Chanchal was brought to the sanctuary.
There are many more stories from other elephants, but they all share somehow the same message: elephants that are held captive for commercial activities are needlessly suffering, and that is something that needs to stop. Wildlife SOS is trying hard to, but it will be good if more people spread awareness! You can read more about Wildlife SOS’s activities here.
Love, Heleen & Stephan