WORDS: CHERYL-ANN COUTO
PHOTOGRAPHS: HASHIM BADANI
GREAT FROM: New Delhi
GREAT FOR: A transformative experience in giving back
Modern life can sometimes feel like an infinite loop of guilt and outrage, as your social media timelines bring you hourly updates of all that is wrong with the world. So, when you chance upon that rare moment of grace and forgiveness, it feels like sweet relief. At the Elephant Care and Conservation Centre (ECCC) in Mathura, that moment might come in the form of a once broken-and-bruised pachyderm cheekily breaking her evening routine to take a dunk in the nearby creek.
Run by NGO Wildlife SOS, the over 30-acre facility, beyond a turn on NH 2 you’re almost sure to miss, offers sanctuary to 21 rescued Asian elephants. Many of them are irrevocably damaged from a lifetime in chained captivity and tortured labour in circuses, temples and the logging industry, with pain and degradation as their only corollaries to human beings. The facility’s staff of vets, education officers and mahouts rallies daily to help them forget. They are aided by volunteers young and old, of every nationality – with not much more in common than compassion – who roll up their sleeves and get to work, slicing and rationing the elephants’ fruit snacks, accompanying them on walks, building cushioned leaning stoops for the arthritic ones and keeping their enclosures clean. The atmosphere is suffused with gentle camaraderie.
Eleven kilometres further along the highway, inside the Sur Sarovar Sanctuary, is Wildlife SOS’s more well-known success story: the Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF), the world’s largest sloth bear rescue facility, spread over 155 acres, and home to the last of India’s ‘dancing bears’. The NGO’s sustained efforts over a decade put paid to the barbaric, centuries-old trade of the nomadic Kalandar people that began for the entertainment of the Mughal emperors. Stolen sloth bear cubs would have a hole brutally gouged in their snout – often so close to the optical nerve that the bears were rendered blind. A coarse rope would then be tugged through the raw wound to make them leap and sway from the pain. Savaged bodies, broken spirits (‘breaking the spirit’ is, devastatingly, the technical term for taming a wild animal) and a deep fear and mistrust of humans were the leading symptoms the facility had to treat.
The sloth bear is not a social animal; where the rescued elephants reward you quickly with a trusting pat of the trunk in under an afternoon at the facility; the bears are more skittish, wary of unfamiliar scents and understandably slow to make friends. You must regard them respectfully from a distance and busy yourself in their service; cleaning their play pools, erecting jungle gyms, devising activities to dissipate their stress, stirring their porridge.
You will also marvel at how some of the bears’ most well-loved keepers are Kalandars, who enter the enclosures without drawing so much as a second glance from their burly inhabitants. Over the years, the NGO has enlisted the community in its conservation efforts by providing them with vocational training and helping them develop alternative sources of income including employment at the facility. It has worked a treat.
Watching an old, blind bear take cautious steps towards the scent of his keeper and accept a lick of honey from his hands will dust the cynicism right off you. The message is one of hope then: if we broke it, perhaps we can fix it, too.