Latitude Adjustment note: Months ago, we asked our friends Sunny and Kevin Branson to do a guest post on their once-in-a-lifetime trip to India to visit the headquarters of Wildlife SOS. Based in India, this conservation group is performing miracles to advocate and care for animals such as elephants and sloth bears. This is a great feel-good story and a nice break from the COVID-19 news firehose.
By Sunny Branson
I put this blog on the back burner thinking that, in this coronavirus climate, it wasn’t a priority. And was it even appropriate now, with all the travel restrictions in place? I decided to move forward with it, because I feel it’s more important than ever to support charities like Wildlife SOS, who are struggling to provide for the hundreds of animals in their care. And maybe it’s nice for people to read something light … a distraction while we look forward to a future when we can all travel again.
So, here goes. This is the first in a three-blog series about the Wildlife SOS Founders Trip in February 2020:
- Intro and Discovering the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre
- Wildlife SOS Sloth Bears
- Ranthambore Safari (and my Top 5 Tips you won’t find in the guide books!)
I’ve been an admirer of Susan and John’s world adventures for years, and was honored when they asked me to be a guest blogger on Latitude Adjustment! I’m excited to share our experience in India in February 2020.
MY INTRODUCTION TO WILDLIFE SOS
My first trip to India was with my husband Kevin and my in-laws in 1995. It was absolutely amazing but difficult. We saw dead or dying animals every day. Every day. In Agra I saw an emaciated “dancing bear” on the side of the road. He had a rope through his muzzle and his handler would tug on it to make him “dance.” It broke my heart. Back at the hotel, there was a donation bin, “Save the Dancing Bears. Donate to Wildlife SOS.” I donated.
Back home in Salt Lake City, I researched WSOS and learned that, while they are an Indian organization, their U.S. headquarters is in Salt Lake City, my home. That was weird. What were the odds? The very next year, I learned they now had 600+ sloth bears under their care and had eradicated the dancing bear practice in India. Eradicated? That was shocking to me. This group was actually making changes. Significant changes.
Wildlife SOS Is Different
What I like about WSOS is that they don’t just confiscate animals, but look at why the problems exist in the first place. In the case of the dancing bears, it was rooted in a community called the Kalandars, who had danced sloth bears for more than 400 years. This practice was deeply embedded in their culture, and for most of them, it was their sole income.
Wildlife SOS recognized that in order to end the dancing bear practice, they had to help the Kalandar community find alternative livelihoods. WSOS provided seed funds to get the Kalandar people trained and started in new jobs. Some of them became rikshaw drivers; some opened shops; women learned crafts; programs were put in place to educate their children. With these packages, the Kalandar families were more than happy to relinquish their bears.
I Was Hooked
I started volunteering for WSOS – working on events and fundraisers, and managing the annual WSOS Spring Auction. I joined the U.S. Board of Directors in January 2019.
Kevin and I wanted to go back to India, this time to visit the WSOS sanctuaries. When I mentioned this to one of the founders, Kartick Satyanarayan, he suggested we join the Wildlife SOS Founders Trip in February 2020. What better way to learn about India’s culture and the work of WSOS than to explore India with Kartick and Geeta Seshamani, Indian natives? And what better way to appreciate the rescue centers, than with the people who created them?
We Were In!
The trip started on Feb. 9, so we arranged to arrive a day early to get over jet lag. Wildlife SOS sent a “meet & greet representative” to collect us at the gate. First of all, if you can arrange to have handlers in India, do it. It’s amazing to be met at the gate and whisked through immigration and luggage collection! The representative handed us off to the driver who delivered us to our hotel. This service was so appreciated after traveling for more than 24 hours.
Elephants in Mathura
From Delhi, we had a four-hour drive to Mathura (near Agra) to visit the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre. This is the moment I was waiting for! We were able to interact with the staff, elephant keepers, and education officers learning about the 30 elephants that Wildlife SOS has rescued.
The ECCC is completely hands off. There’s no riding or bathing the elephants. It is 100% focused on the elephants’ comfort and mental wellbeing. However, the ECCC has a fantastic terrace for observing the elephants. They served lunch, but we were too enamored with the elephants to care much about that. I wanted to know everything about the elephants – their traumatic history, their recovery process, and their favorite foods and activities.
When Maya was first rescued from the circus, she was underfed and withdrawn. She was forced to work at the circus and was chained at the end of the day. Today, Maya is a happy and healthy elephant and loves her friend Phoolkali’s company.
The first time the Wildlife SOS elephant intelligence team spotted Phoolkali, she looked like she was going to collapse. It was evident that she was being badly mistreated and neglected. Phoolkali is a very gentle elephant and was rescued from Agra in May 2012. She is blind in her right eye. What I learned meeting her in person, is that when the sun hits her, you can see a beautiful red head of fuzz!
Later we were able to meet Laxmi. I have always had a soft spot for Laxmi. She was rescued in 2013 as an obese begging elephant. We call her Our Little Dumpling (but not to her face). She was never given appropriate elephant food and survived on fried street food offered by tourists. She was so fat, WSOS needed a crane to get her in the rescue vehicle because she was not fit to get in on her own. Now she is a happy and playful 25-year-old elephant living with her herd at Wildlife SOS.
Laxmi is highly motivated by food (as any proper dumpling might be), which makes her an excellent student for “target training.” Target training is a method using positive reinforcement to get an animal to allow being touched. This is an important process so the vets can provide treatment to the elephants. The interaction is very different than the harsh methods used in the elephants’ previous lives.
Some elephants are slower to take to target training, but as soon as Laxmi learned that if she followed cues, she’d be rewarded with dates or peanuts, she was more than willing.
It was heartwarming to see so many rescued elephants and learn that even after their long, traumatic history of neglect and abuse, they could come to trust humans again. Not only trust, but to bond. The relationship between the caregivers and their elephants was remarkable. These elephants have finally found a safe haven surrounded by people who love and care for them … and they seem to know it.
We then participated in some hands-on activities of building enrichments for the elephants. Any great rescue center will provide enrichment activities for their animals to keep them happy and mentally stimulated. We took green fodder, jaggery (molasses), peanuts, and chick peas, stuffed them in a bamboo stalk or wrapped them up in vegetation. We hid the enrichments in the elephant enclosures, then retired to the lanai and observed the elephants as they came back from their walks and searched for the surprise treats! I teared up thinking of how this kind of attention was blatantly absent in their previous lives. It made me so proud to be a part of this effort.
The Elephant Hospital
I was part of an effort in 2018 to help WSOS raise enough money to open India’s first hospital for elephants. I’d seen many photos and videos, and celebrated the opening from afar, but visiting in person was an incredible experience for me. The hospital has X-ray equipment, thermal imaging and ultrasonography labs, and a medical hoist for moving special needs elephants (it’s shocking how often a hoist is needed for these older elephants).
The hospital is important for Wildlife SOS elephants, but also for everyone in the region who works with elephants because it serves as a training center. They’ve built an observation deck so that veterinarians, students, interns, and elephant caregivers can observe the medical techniques — while learning about humane elephant management and compassionate care.
We were able to watch treatments of Holly and Kalpana from the observation deck. Holly and Kalpana don’t have the mobility for target training, but the vets still use positive reinforcement. The elephants’ comfort is top of mind. These two are inseparable so they let them stay together for treatments. The rubber flooring makes it easier on their feet. We got to watch Kalpana get a follow up X-ray on an old fracture. And Holly had blood drawn. Their caregivers are close by to shower them with rewards.
The Elephant Ambulance
We also got to tour the elephant ambulance. This vehicle was prompted by Laxmi’s rescue. During the drive, she amused herself by snaking her trunk into the cabin trying to play with the driver. That’s her featured with her herd on the truck’s artwork.
The Field of Dreams
In 2016, we started fundraising to buy more land so WSOS could rescue more elephants. We called it the “Field of Dreams.” The Wildlife SOS elephant rescue center was close to capacity and needed more space in order to save more elephants.
By 2018 we had raised the necessary funds, and the dream became reality — our elephant Field of Dreams was officially open! Again, I celebrated from Salt Lake City and rejoiced at the scenic river and abundant green foliage.
On our last day of the Founders Trip, they surprised us with a visit to the Field of Dreams, where we watched Maya and Phoolkali play in the water. Our hosts brought chairs, tea, and biscuits for the group (if you look back at the first photo, you’ll see Kevin’s tea cup beside him). The elephants were carefree and relaxed, providing some great photo opportunities!
The Wildlife SOS Founders Trip was off to a great start. The ECCC, the Elephant Hospital, and the Field of Dreams were amazing to experience. Geeta and Kartick were with us each day, providing a unique insight into India and the animal rescue community there. Seeing how the elephants interacted with their caregivers and veterinarians was heartwarming.