Thailand Elephants volunteer, Hannah Martin, spent three weeks volunteering at the Wildlife SOS (WSOS) bear and elephant sanctuaries near Agra, India. In her blog, she explains why a visit the elephant sanctuary is the perfect day out for tourists and locals alike, and a great way to support the ongoing conservation of some of India’s most beautiful and endangered animals.
As I drove into WSOS’ Elephant sanctuary, nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming feeling I experienced when laying eyes on these gentle giants for the first time. It’s one thing seeing elephants on TV, or even in a zoo, but when you see a whole group of them in the flesh, playing, eating, bathing and generally loving life, it is incredibly moving.
There are approximately 17,000 captive elephants in the world, around 4,000 are in India. For centuries, these majestic creatures have been used for travel, logging, 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.
The Bear Necessities
Bears in Asia are mainly used for bile farming but in India they’ve been used as dancing bears for around 500 years. All 200 bears at the sanctuary are former dancing bears. Incredibly, the practice has been completely eradicated in India by Wildlife SOS through offering the bear owners (‘Kalandars’) training and jobs at the facility.
Wildlife SOS rescues captive elephants and brings them to the sanctuary to live out the rest of their days in peace and safety. The elephants live in enclosures of two and spend their days taking long walks with their friends and keepers (‘mahouts’), paddling in their pools, eating, and sleeping.
Visitors are taken on personalised, guided two-hour tours of the sanctuary and learn about the history of the animals and how they came to be rescued. Some of the stories, such as Raju’s who cried when he was rescued after 70 years as a riding elephant, will move, astound, and ultimately inspire you. As a visitor, you have a truly unique opportunity to observe the elephants and accompany (from a respectful distance) them on their daily walks, and observe the keepers, vets and volunteers caring for them.
Visitors do not touch the elephants – even though they’ve been around humans their entire lives, it’s important to remember that eles are strong, wild animals. And although you can’t touch the bears (they are cute but can be pretty feisty!) you can observe them from close proximity.
Update: When I visited in 2018, volunteers washed the elephants every day. Since then, this has stopped and the staff say the elephants are much calmer.
WSOS is a truly unique charity as they aren’t just dedicated to rescuing animals, but they also support the communities who have traditionally relied on using the animals for their livelihoods. They support local Kalandar children to go to school and offer advice and support to the adults to set up their own businesses. Through this continued, holistic effort to encourage the entire community to better themselves, WSOS has made an incredible difference to the lives of hundreds of Kalandar people.
Each sanctuary has a lovely giftshop that sells hand-made goods from the local Kalandar women. WSOS trained the women in traditional Indian crafts and the shop is bursting with beautiful, colourful and intricate trinkets and mementos. You even have the opportunity of owning a truly original piece of art: an elephant-footprint-on-canvas, created by the talented residents themselves!
You can enjoy a personal guided experience at the Bear or Elephant Conservation and Care Center during the following times: 9am – 11am, 11am – 1pm and 3pm – 5pm.
Contact WSOS for more information and book.