An Eden Garden for Elephants – Wildlife SOS


An Eden Garden for Elephants – Wildlife SOS
Meghna ‘Phoenix’ Ghatak

After watching Netflix’s recent film, Holiday in the Wild featuring Hollywood actors Kristen Davis and Rob Lowe rescuing wild elephants in Zambia, I was left wondering about the state of elephant conservation in India. Elephants have reached an endangered status and an uneven sex ratio due to the killing of the male elephants for their tusks and poaching of matriarchs upon contact with human settlements. Despite being highly protected under the Indian wildlife protection act, 1972, elephants have been commercially traded for their tusks, used as sources of entertainment in circuses or, ridden upon in royal weddings, tourism hot spots and temple gates both in Asia as well as Africa.
Wildlife SOS – Elephant Conservation and Care Center

We wanted to see if conservation work for elephants was as romantic as they had shown in the movie, so we boarded a train to Mathura and convinced an autorikshaw driver to take us to Wildlife SOS – Elephant Conservation and Care Center. Putting our collective trust on Google maps, we drove 35 km from Mathura railway station onto NH2, took a left turn from Sachdeva Institute of Technology in Thurmura Ghari and bumped our way into the centre. We all dropped down shakily, asked the driver to wait for us and followed our tour guide/education officer – Mr. N Vijay Varma who marched us towards a lobby where we were introduced to the concept of the sanctuary. We couldn’t stop our tears when a documentary on the horrors inflicted on the elephants was shown to us. Mr. Varma told us that the center, after opening in 2010 in Mathura, was primarily focused on the rescue and rehabilitation of pachyderms previously used in circuses – made to ride bicycles, tourism – to carry royalty as well as tourists and temples – as mounts of god who grant blessings when you feed them. It all starts with ‘Phajaan’- a brutal technique to break down wild baby elephants to perform on their handlers’ commands without revolt.
Mr. N Vijay Varma explaining the use of the means of torture

These elephants suffered from a variety of maladies due to the torturous weapons used to tame them, such as – marks from Ankush tearing through their flesh, foot clamps and chains permanently damaging their toes and so on. Many of these modes of torture were displayed there and demonstrated by Mr. Vijay. An elephant gets depressed when it loses its strength in its foot, hence imagine the indignation it faces when it goes ambling on concrete roads, unable to sit down due to the foot clamps or chains tied to restrain its movements. The government of India banned the mahout community from catching/buying new elephants post 1972, but the community simply insured their elephants and reused their certificates for multiple pachyderms. Hence measures to install chips to counteract these malpractices and other illegal activities are being undertaken.
Elephant Memorial

It was heartbreaking to hear that poaching was still allowed in some countries and rescue missions were so costly that the center has lost many elephants and are now commemorated in their elephant memorial, which is the first one of its kind in India. The center also has a dedicated elephant hospital, which is Asia’s first initiative and has bear conservatories in Agra, Bhopal, Bannerghatta and Purulia as well as stray cattle rescue unit in Mathura.

The elephants need to walk 20 to 30 km a day in the mud so that they can regulate their body temperatures through sweat glands present in their toe nails. Hence, rescues here are taken for their daily walk amidst dusty fields of scanty vegetation such as dhatura and dry grass, led by their caretakers and local dogs who doubled up as our tour guides. It was mesmerizing to walk in their huge footprints, avoiding the piles of feces discarded by them, and find them tranquilly munching or cooling off with dust in the backdrop of deserted illegal construction. In their enclosures, they are provided with dirt piles to cool themselves and 250 kg of food depending upon their physical conditions and seasonal availability.
Maya and Phoolkali

Maya and Phoolkali have bald patches on their backs from carrying howdahs in Agra as temple and riding elephants. Phoolkali had been ecstatic to find a pond after being rescued and had bathed for 14 hours straight for she hadn’t had one in her servitude of 48 years, as reported by our education officer/ tour guide.  Elderly matriarchs Asha and Susie had limps from bones broken by bondage; Susie was blind and couldn’t digest easily. Liya and Riya, the circus bicycle riding elephants could not accompany others for the daily walks as they had severely deformed feet. Suraj, the sole male elephant walking with us today (for the others were in heat/mast and were unstable) had one missing left ear as a result of ankush marks.  We were not allowed to touch or feed either of the pachyderms as the volunteers had, after years of experience, found that they were uncomfortable with unfamiliar presence.
Suraj
The center has 85 permanent staff and various volunteers funded entirely by donations received from visitors and donors. Mr. Varma is one of the permanent staff who has left behind a career in the banking industry and says that he and every other volunteer do not regret their decision even once. Together, they have hosted many national and international visitors who have helped gather awareness for the rescue and welfare of many elephants. As we stood chattering with Mr. Varma, who cheerfully pointed out a parakeet nibbling on a seasonal fruit, patting our nameless tour guide dog; we couldn’t help but marvel at their initiative. It took estimately 50 lakh to 1 crore to buy an elephant and an equal amount to maintain them annually, hence it was a commendable feat in itself.
Our canine tour guide

We urge everyone who care about elephants, to visit the center's website – wildlifesos.org and donate, sponsor or volunteer for these former beasts of burden, to be free and well taken care of. We assure you one thing - you won’t regret it, even once.

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