During our recent work trip to India, we had the privilege to volunteer at an elephant conservation sanctuary run by Wildlife SOS.

Wildlife SOS is mainly known for its work in eradicating the cruel practice of ‘dancing bears’ in India.  However, they tirelessly continue to rescue, rehabilitate and care for injured, abused, displaced and abandoned animals, at their conservation sanctuaries throughout India.

We were met by our educational officer, Shivam, whose knowledge and passion for all animals shone through.  He patiently answered all our questions and taught us so much.  Each story was heart breaking and it was in sad spirits that we started our day.

Elephants live in family herds in the forests.  They are sociable mammals and have deep bonds within their groups, showing care and respect for their old and young. They are considered sacred and can often be found around temples, painted and adorned.  This status gives the illusion that are cared for.  The situation couldn’t be further from reality.  Unscrupulous owners make a lot of money from elephants, through logging, in circuses, or tourism.  Firstly, the elephant will have to be separated from its mother or herd.  So, every elephant that is seen in cities or towns, or ridden by tourists, is completely broken, both mentally and physically.  The elephant will be under the ‘care’ of a series of keepers who will have to restrain, torture and beat the animal into submission – every day of its life.    Some of the elephants we met were 50 years old by the time they had been brought to the sanctuary.  The lives they have endured are quite unthinkable.

To return an animal back into the wild would always be the ultimate aim.  Sadly, all the elephants we met were too damaged to ever be able to live independently.  However, they now have a place where they are able to slowly heal and socialise and where they can live in peace and experience kindness for the remainder of their lives.

The elephants at Mathura are encouraged by positive reinforcement – no sticks or chains are used.  As we walked around being introduced, they were having pedicures, happily putting their feet up for the vet to trim, whilst they munched on watermelons and papaya.

Our first task was to bathe and scrub two huge, elderly female elephants.  Needless to say that when we were given a hose and some brushes and entered their space, we were a little wary that one move could end up with us being squashed. This elderly elephant was so relaxed and seemed quite content, being tended to by some amateurs.  We were frequently told to ‘scrub harder’ by the attendants.Even the 42 degree heat couldn’t wipe the smile off our faces – it was amazing.  Jane (aka Mrs P) had trouble controlling the water supply and we were all soaking wet by the end. Giving them a bucket of fruit was their reward for enduring a substandard pamper, their trunks delicately sniffing and gently scooping up each piece from our hands.

In the afternoon, we were handed machetes to chop sacks of jack fruits, bunches of bananas (being careful to mind spiders the size of saucers) papaya and cucumbers for the elephants’ tea, before slowly ambling into the fields with our bathed and rested elderly ladies, sitting under the shade of the trees, learning more about Wildlife SOS’s work and listening to the stories of the keepers, whilst the elephants potter ed about and investigated this and that, coming back now and then, giving us a once over with their trunks, just in case we might have a treat in our pocket.By the end of the

day we were exhausted, covered in sticky fruit and mud.  Our hearts were filled to bursting with happiness and sadness, fully aware that although it was incredible being so close to such magnificent animals, without any sticks or chains or ropes between us, it was only possible because they have never learnt how to be an elephant.
If we could ask you one small thing – that if you are going to Asia you don’t ride an elephant.  They are majestic, beautiful creatures and best seen in their natural habitat.

Pigeon plans to donate a small percentage of sales of elephant rompers to Wildlife SOS (more on this to follow).

For more details about the wonderful work that Wildlife SOS do, and for information about some of the elephants that they are desperately trying to rescue, please visit:

http://wildlifesos.org/