Five days, nine elephants, four happy Bulls
Tuesday 24th October 2017
We left Delhi and headed south to somewhere just outside Agra to volunteer with Wildlife SOS, a charity that started out rescuing sloth bears - India's dancing bears before starting to rescue some of India's elephants too.
We endured the worst journey of our lives. Over seven hours (the driver got lost in a journey that should have taken three and a half), we were driven around Agra for two hours trying to find a cash machine that worked as the driver refused to accept one of our 2000 rupee notes as it had a small tear in it (new denomination means everyone was wary of accepting it) and we drove past the scene of a fireworks accident which we can't and won't describe here.
We finally arrived, borderline hysterical and met Vijay and Hari who work for the charity. The volunteers stay in one of the charity's houses that they have on a large residential estate. It was great to be somewhere more homely after being in a hotel.
We settled in, had dinner, met a bunch of Americans who were on placement and then headed to bed eager for the next day.
We were up and ready and headed off with Hari and Shiva who work with volunteers at the elephant sanctuary. We were raring to go and excitedly walked around the enclosures meeting each of the elephants. We had read their stories the night before in a book at the volunteer house. Each of them as awful and tragic as each other. Tales of cruelty and abuse just so sad. Especially when you understand how intelligent and emotional elephants are.
We met Suzy who was blind and had no teeth, purely from old age not any acts of cruelty and Lakshmi who had been grossly overweight when she arrived having been fed burgers and sweets by people who believed that they were pleasing (elephant headed) god Ganesha by feeding the real elephant.
We could see the scars on some of the elephants, ears torn from the use of bull hooks, Aisha's leg stiff from an old injury that wasn't looked after and healed incorrectly and poor Mia's feet, her painful toenails and feet causing her to spend many hours lying down which in turn causes sores.
We watched a documentary called 'An apology to elephants' - watch it if you can - about the horrible mistreatment of elephants over thousands of years. We were all in tears at parts of it.
The girls got to help bath the elephants, and they were both delighted as they scrubbed the elephants' tough wrinkly skin and got a soaking themselves! We felt so lucky to be up close to these amazing animals and part of their lives for just a few hours. Hari and Shiva taught us how to tell the difference between the female elephants (the males are kept separately) by recognising some of the signs, ear scars or hairy tails or not such hairy tails. The females have their own little groups that they stay in and we got to learn a lot about who's who.
We headed back out to chop fruit for the elephants, watermelons, bananas and pumpkins all allocated to buckets for the elephants' afternoon snack. The girls weighed them out according to dietary requirement and we chopped the watermelon into "smoothies" - no skin - for Suzy.
We also helped pick up poop and sweep out the shower area. Then it was time for a walk.
We headed out and caught up with Maya and Phoolkali out with the head keeper. We sat and watched as Kitty fed the elephants bananas and just enjoyed the peace of being in the company of these magnificent creatures. They are so huge but so gentle. It can feel overwhelming how big they are and at times I was concerned that they would squish us, only by accident but still, but they know where you are and often reach a trunk out to smell you. Making eye contact with an elephant up close is something so special and indescribable but there is something in those eyes that connects on a human level.
We headed home weary but exhilarated after our day with the elephants. Tomorrow would see us visit the bear sanctuary.
We woke up and this time headed out with Vijay to meet Bheema at the bear sanctuary.
Again we watched a documentary, one of the saddest and most horrific videos we have seen. The way the bears are kept under control is by a rope tied through their nose. This is done by forcing a red hot poker through the skin and tying it or using a metal ring. It's awful. The bears are in constant pain and forced to dance.
We saw how the bear owners were encouraged to bring their bears in and are compensated for the loss of their bear. In fact it's one of the things that's most impressed me about Wildlife SOS is their commitment to education. They haven't just taken the bears and scolded the humans. They've taught the people new skills to help them maintain an income, some are watch menders or spicer sellers, some stay on at the sanctuary and learn to care for the bears. Women and children of the families are taught new skills also so that no one ever returns to a living from dancing bears.
We went into the keepers gallery to be able to see the bears. We found our prescence however provoked a very negative reaction amongst the bears. Some would instantly start swaying (known as stereotypical behaviour) displaying signs of stress, one called Gopi, would literally sprint away as soon as he saw us. It was really quite upsetting.
We also saw their ferocity. As we stood and watched Gail, she soon decided she'd had enough of us watching and jumped up growling fiercely. We all jumped out of our skin while the keeper chuckled and said she wants us to go away now. So we did!
We headed further through the sanctuary and saw keepers building new platforms, others washing out pools. We walked down to the river and crossed in the small wooden boat to the other side where the majority of the bears are kept.
Here we drove around seeing some of the bear enclosures and getting to meet mowgli - a cub whose mother was electrocuted by a fence and left him orphaned at just a few months old. His face isn't scarred like the other bears and his temperament is that of a bear that isn't just a playful cub but one who hasn't been traumatised at the hands of humans. He was gorgeous and we would have loved to give him a "bear hug" but they are trying to make sure he doesn't become too humanised and he still has claws and teeth!!
We crossed back over the river and had a look around the porridge kitchen. The bears are fed this sweet smelling mixture of porridge which includes fruit and honey and other ingredients, along with watermelon and other snacks. We also watched carefully as there were so many monkeys around each sneakily conjuring up a plan to pinch the bananas and fruits!!
We helped out by washing out the enclosures. The bears often watched through the grills or against the hatch doors and would occasionally let out a fierce growl much to Nikki's horror! The girls had a go too - first jet washing then squeegee-ing the floor dry.
We then helped dish out the porridge, first you collect it in a giant vat that is wheeled on a trolley from the kitchen. Then it is doled out equally amongst the platters. Once it's cooled down it's then put into the bears' dens. I'm not even joking when I say it lasts seconds. The tray is out down and they slurp it up - three jugs worth and with banana mashed in - and as quickly as you've put it down it's gone!!
We washed up (Kitty's favourite part) the platters and stacked them up ready for the next day.
We finished up for the day and headed home, and actually ordered ourselves a Domino's as we needed a change from the taste of Indian spices. We had been warned against this by every single person we know who's been to India but the lure of pizza was too much! We stuck to veggie and actually we were fine. And boy! It was GOOD!!
Darcy was so shocked by what she had learnt with the bears that she wrote a blog post that night. You may have already read it but if not check out the post called "cruelty, craziness and courage".
The next day we returned to the elephants and got straight into chopping up fruit for the buckets. It's a pretty set routine for the eles - snacks, baths, vet, fodder, rest, porridge, walk, snacks.
This time we also helped put the fodder in the enrichment cages (where the elephants have to figure out how to get to the fodder) and strung it up high so they have to stretch and reach to get it down. Fodder is heavier than it looks!
Back in for lunch and a documentary (Leonardo Di Caprio's Before the Flood, very good; highly recommend) and then more fruit chopping and walking. Darcy got to walk the elephants back in herself and loved the chance to be the keeper, chatting away to the elephants as we went.
Our final day was split between the two sanctuaries, giving us the chance to experience both one last time.
With the bears we chopped fruit (see a pattern here?!) and watched mesmerised as they ate the watermelon. Unlike the elephants who crunch the whole lot - skin and all, the bears are able to close off their nostrils and use their tongues to slurp out the juicy melon flesh, leaving glistening white and green skins all over the floor. They demolish food Ike nothing we've ever seen!!
We then helped clean out one of the enclosure pools, sweeping it of leaves then rinsing, then sprinkling a bleach powder, scrubbing it then rinsing again. It was extremely hard work more so given the roasting temperature and wearing a surgical mask to prevent germs transmitting from either side and for the smell of the bleach.
We finished up and headed back to the elephants accompanied by Wildlife SOS centre director Baiju Raj. Nikki and I noticed that he was reading Darcy's blog and we were so proud when he praised her writing and content. She absolutely beamed too as he mentioned that he may use some of her blog in his presentations! Talking to Baiju was so inspiring for Darcy, we have no doubt that she will work with animals one day but to chat to someone like Baiju has spurred her ambition even further. Whilst it changes from marine biologist to ecologist to wildlife conservationist we are happy that she has such ambitions to save the world's animals and feels so strongly at such a young age.
We carried out our tasks with the elephants (fruit chopping mainly!) and headed out for a last walk. There's nothing like walking alongside these animals. It's just incredible. I can't even use words enough to describe it. By now we could recognise the elephants and I like to think they could recognise us.
We finished off with the staff and Nikki having a quick few balls of cricket before heading home for another night of Dominos and some of the staff for a goodbye pizza party.
We were so sad to leave Wildlife SOS but I have no doubt we will return. Darcy has already requested Baiju's email so that she can stay in touch about a job when she is older!!
We set off for Agra and the last part of our Indian trip.