Wildlife tourism is on the rise world wide. Relating to some animal encounters nonetheless, like elephant rides, there’s a darker story, one which many vacationers by no means see. On this article, our author Danielle stories from India on the actual value of elephant tourism, and the organisations striving to finish the captive elephant business.
Maya paused in her gradual meander via the sphere of inexperienced, leafy vegetation. Framed by bushes, and bathed within the golden mild of the late afternoon solar, she closed her eyes for a second and stood completely nonetheless. I questioned what was going via her thoughts.
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As a life-long entertainer within the circus, Maya’s days and nights had been full of concern and ache. She was abused, uncared for and remoted. She by no means had sufficient meals or water. Day after day, she was pressured to carry out tips for a paying public that put her weakened physique below monumental stress. At evening, she was tightly chained by the legs so she couldn’t escape.
In 2010, after almost 4 lengthy a long time of pressured work, exhausted and withdrawn, Maya’s world was turned on its head. She was rescued from her captivity, and brought to a sanctuary the place she may reside out her days freed from chains and struggling.
Maya is an Asian elephant, and whereas her journey has a contented ending, her story is only one of many within the lengthy and complex story of India’s captive elephants.
It’s this story that introduced me, on behalf of NOMADasaurus and within the firm of the TreadRight Basis, to town of Mathura in northern India.
Placing Wildlife Tourism within the Image
Wildlife tourism is on the rise the world over, as extra of us hunt down alternatives for particular, close-up encounters with our favorite creatures.
For a lot of native communities, and for the animals that entice vacationers, that is excellent news. Effectively-managed wildlife tourism can carry vital advantages by the use of the tourism greenback, whereas additionally driving consciousness and, in some circumstances, higher protections for environments and animals.
However there’s a darker facet to some animal encounters; conditions the place what you see is barely a handful of pixels within the greater image.
As travellers, the selections we make and the actions we take on the subject of animals on our travels, could make all of the distinction. And consciousness is our best instrument.
Vivid India – The Journey to an Elephant Sanctuary Close to Agra
My journey to go to an elephant sanctuary in a paddock fifty kilometres north of Agra, began a few days earlier in Delhi.
A metropolis of 25 million folks, Delhi is a microcosm of tradition and historical past, wrapped up in a sensory whirlwind of color, noise and sheer humanity.
Tradition shock doesn’t fairly seize the sensation of arriving on this kaleidoscopic metropolis. All you possibly can actually do is maintain on and go alongside for the journey.
As my second go to to Delhi, I had the advantage of realizing what to anticipate as my taxi cleared the airport gates.
Nonetheless, the cacophony of automotive horns and shouting rickshaw drivers, the laneless havoc of the visitors, the calls of the streetside stall-holders promoting lime juice and snacks, was sudden and intense.
I couldn’t assist however smile. This in India, and it truly is like nowhere else.
Exploring the Golden Triangle in India
In addition to being India’s most populous metropolis, Delhi is the northernmost level of a well known vacationer path referred to as the Golden Triangle.
The opposite factors on the circuit are the traditional cities of Jaipur and Agra, and my journey would take me by way of a few of the historic highlights of all three, en path to town of Mathura.
The lengthy historical past on this nook of northern India weaves collectively a vibrant tapestry of cultures, religions, dynasties and empires going again a thousand years and extra.
A Golden Triangle tour provides guests a style of this wealthy previous because it passes from metropolis to village, and from city sprawl via desert throughout the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and the Nationwide Capital Territory of Delhi.
It’s an Indian Thali of awe-inspiring forts and opulent palaces, ornate homes of worship, spectacular monuments, exquisitely designed tombs, and ever-changing landscapes.
It additionally takes in a few of India’s most well-known sights, together with the world-renowned Taj Mahal of Agra.
However not removed from the Taj is one other spotlight of the Golden Triangle, much less well-known maybe, however much more inspiring: the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, our final vacation spot.
The Story of India’s Elephants
Asian elephants have roamed the forested landscapes of the Asian continent since time immemorial. Right now although, their habitat has diminished to all however a number of pockets of the sub-continent and south-east Asia.
Threats reminiscent of poaching, the unlawful wildlife commerce, habitat loss, battle with folks, and captive elephant industries have all contributed – and proceed to contribute – to the itemizing of the Asian elephant as an endangered species.
Not like their cousins in Africa, Asian elephant populations are on the decline.
There are estimated to be anyplace between 30,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants left on the planet. The bulk reside in India, and of those, round 3,500 elephants are in captivity, pressured to work their complete lives for the revenue and leisure of individuals.
They haul logs in forest clearing operations, they carry out in circuses, they’re used to beg for cash and meals on the streets.
As an earthly consultant of the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesha, elephants are chained in temples to provide blessings. They’re employed out for festivals, weddings and celebrations.
They’re additionally used prominently within the tourism commerce, and it was on the Amber Fort in Jaipur, a spotlight of the Golden Triangle, that we have been launched to this chapter within the story of India’s captive elephant commerce.
It’s a chapter of specific relevance to us as travellers: the business for vacationer elephant rides.
Difficult Historical past and Custom
Asian elephants have been domesticated for 1000’s of years. They function all through India’s lengthy historical past, and have nice significance in sure traditions and non secular practices. Some would ask, why change?
As a result of occasions have modified.
For one factor, capturing elephants for industrial revenue is in opposition to the regulation in India. Nonetheless an amnesty again in 2003 allowed for elephants already in captivity to be stored, offered they have been registered.
The issue is, captive elephants are nonetheless worthwhile, and so their seize and commerce has merely carried on with using cast or questionable certificates. Many captive elephants in India in the present day are stored illegally.
Conservation is a significant situation. Elephants, who vary far and large within the wild, are vital to the well being of forest habitats. Like their forest houses although, Asian elephant numbers are dwindling, and there are fears that they are going to be gone from the wild inside a matter of generations.
“Individuals are inclined to overlook the truth that each captive elephant is an elephant that was taken from the wild, who may probably have had a household…taking out even one elephant form of derails the conservation quest for Asian elephants altogether.” Gargi Sharma, Assistant Elephant Marketing campaign Officer, Wildlife SOS
Then there’s the tragic actuality of the very actual struggling, abuse and neglect of elephants in captivity, and the brutal information behind the ‘coaching’ used to interrupt them in for work.
This merciless course of, which regularly takes locations whereas elephants are nonetheless very younger, includes beatings, torture and hunger. It’s referred to as ‘the crush’, as a result of its function is to crush the elephant’s spirit fully, to power it into submission via concern and ache.
It’s a devastating and inhumane follow, and it units a horrible tone for the life that these elephants will lead in captivity.
“How they’re coming into this [human] world, how they’re being tortured and skilled, that’s all hidden [from] the native public and the vacationer. That’s our first goal, to inform the folks what is going on.” Shivam Rai, Schooling & Conservation Officer, Wildlife SOS
The Captive Elephants of Amber Fort
I realized from Gargi Sharma, a workforce member at Wildlife SOS, that there are two main captive elephant hubs in India.
One is in Kerala, the place temple elephants are large enterprise. The opposite is Amber Fort in Jaipur, essentially the most well-known place for vacationers to go on an elephant journey in India.
Amber Fort, also called Amer Fort, perches atop a excessive hill overlooking a dramatic panorama close to Jaipur. Above and past the palace, the ramparts of Jaigarh Fort rise and fall over the encompassing hills.
The climb to Amber Fort is alongside a steep, cobbled path and it’s this rise that elephants slog again and again, day after day, as they haul lots of of kilos of seat body, keeper and vacationers as much as the palace on their backs.
The elephants of Amber Fort, their faces and trunks painted in swirling pastels, their enormous our bodies draped in brilliant satin, forged an instantaneous spell on guests to the fort.
Some would possibly say there’s an old-world appeal about being carried by a creature as majestic because the elephant to a palace constructed for kings.
However investigations by the Animal Welfare Board of India have proven that the elephants undergo profoundly in offering vacationers with these rides. They’re overworked, many are malnourished, some are blind. Many have untreated wounds from beatings and bullhooks.
All of them undergo painful foot issues, a results of pounding the pavements below a heavy load day after day, with no aid or medical care.
My Journey to Elephant Tourism Consciousness
Standing within the elephant ‘foyer’ at Amber Fort, I watched as elephants lined up for vacationer boarding, swaying their heads below the heels of their handlers. Every keeper held a wood stick of their lap, the one signal of the tough strategies used to ‘deal with’ the elephants; invisible to anybody not in search of them.
I used to be overcome as I watched the elephants by a reminiscence of my very own, an expertise that left a long-lasting affect. In 2011, I had stood on this exact same place. Proper right here, at Amber Fort. And that point, I rode an elephant.
I nonetheless recall the expertise vividly, lurching and rolling up the hill. The handler continuously nudged the top of the elephant along with his foot to maintain her transferring at a gentle tempo, all of the whereas making an attempt to get us to take photographs of him for a tip.
My accomplice and I didn’t know then what goes on behind the scenes for these elephants. We hadn’t accomplished our analysis. However as we held on, watching the circus-like procession wind its approach up the hill, what we did know is that it didn’t really feel proper.
That feeling by no means left us. Our subsequent cease after India was Thailand and, in an effort to know extra concerning the captive elephant business, we visited an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
Alongside our expertise in Jaipur, the elephant sanctuary was a wake-up name, and collectively the 2 moments modified our emotions about elephant tourism for good.
The Struggle Towards Elephants in Captivity
I wasn’t conscious on that first go to to Jaipur that there was an organisation in India already making vital headway within the struggle for the well being, wellbeing and freedom of captive Asian elephants.
That organisation was Wildlife SOS, and the chance to go to their elephant sanctuary in India on this journey – within the firm of TreadRight, a basis supporting their efforts – was a chance I jumped at.
Wildlife SOS was based in 1995 as a not-for-profit devoted to defending and conserving nature and wildlife throughout India.
The organisation runs a spread of packages, from rescue and rehabilitation, and wildlife training, to human/wildlife battle mitigation, and regulation enforcement coaching.
Additionally they work with native and tribal communities to establish and assist new alternatives and livelihoods that transfer folks away from wildlife exploitation.
Wildlife SOS was instrumental in eradicating the centuries-old follow of ‘dancing bears’ in India. Right now, they’re working for change and, hopefully at some point, an finish to the captive elephant business.
The problem is a protracted and complex one, and there are very actual obstacles to the folks concerned in elephant rescue and care. Rescues will be dangerous, and court docket circumstances to take away sick and injured elephants from captivity can final a very long time, at vital value.
Wildlife SOS works extensively with the Indian authorities, forestry departments and regulation enforcement of their endeavour to each enhance situations and look after elephants in captivity, and to rescue elephants in misery.
Additionally they attempt to teach and lift consciousness amongst native and worldwide communities for the lengthy sport: no elephants in captivity.
A Partnership for Accountable Tourism
TreadRight, a not-for-profit established by journey and leisure group, The Journey Company, has supported Wildlife SOS in increasing their capacity to drive change extra successfully by funding a authorized and regulation enforcement coaching centre on the Wildlife SOS elephant sanctuary in Mathura.
I visited Wildlife SOS with TreadRight Ambassador, Céline Cousteau, who defined that moral interactions between vacationers and wild animals is a key focus for TreadRight and its accomplice tour firms.
For TreadRight, supporting initiatives in collaboration with native organisations is prime to making sure that the locations, folks and wildlife visited by its firms and vacationers are impacted positively by these visits, now and into the long run. Working with Wildlife SOS is a crucial partnership each for supporting sustainable wildlife tourism on the bottom in India, and for serving to travellers to make knowledgeable decisions concerning the wildlife experiences they’ve.
“I believe the tourism business has super potential to do good. Proper now, our footprint is sort of large, however I believe increasingly more the traveller is changing into savvy, and companies have gotten way more sustainable in the way in which that they operate. And we have to hold encouraging that.” Céline Cousteau, TreadRight Ambassador
TreadRight has supported greater than fifty sustainable initiatives world wide. Initiatives fluctuate by place and want, and TreadRight works facet by facet with communities to establish the place and the way their assist will help essentially the most.
“We check out the vacation spot, we learn the way can we make journey matter inside this vacation spot, what can greatest be served by what we do.” Zach Vanasse, Program Supervisor, TreadRight Basis.
Tasks vary from a girls’s cooperative supporting monetary independence in Jordan, to delivering clear water to youngsters in Cambodia, to serving to Wildlife SOS obtain its conservation objectives in India via the supply of much-needed services.
Along with the coaching centre, Wildlife SOS and TreadRight have additionally labored collectively to create a information for travellers on what to search for when searching for elephant pleasant experiences.
Visiting Wildlife SOS in Mathura
The Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura is a kind of locations the place you possibly can work together with elephants in a pleasant, moral and significant approach.
Visiting the elephant sanctuary was the excessive level of our journey; we have been there to study concerning the work of Wildlife SOS, and to fulfill the rescued elephants of their care.
Twenty Asian elephants reside on the elephant rescue park in Mathura, every a refugee from a department of the captive elephant business.
“Suzy was a circus elephant. Asha, she’s representing the Amer Fort…and we’ve had a number of elephants who have been utilized in ceremonies and so they have been begging on the highway. So each elephant [here]…represents a purpose why this follow has to finish.” Gargi Sharma, Assistant Elephant Marketing campaign Officer, Wildlife SOS
The elephants on the centre all carry some legacy of their earlier lives. Some indicators are seen, like bullhook-torn ears, physique wounds from beatings, damaged toenails and broken footpads from put on and neglect.
Some signs point out a far deeper situation. The youngest elephant to be rescued by Wildlife SOS, Peanut, waved and bobbed her head continuously as she waited for lunch.
It’s a behavior, one of many keepers informed me, borne of the stress she skilled throughout her time as a circus elephant. Captured as a child and simply six years previous when she was rescued, the circus was the one life Peanut had ever recognized.
Elephants are recognized to have lengthy recollections, and Peanut might carry her tic for the remainder of her life. Right now although, she is a contented, wholesome younger elephant with a household herd, boundless vitality and a penchant for mischief.
For the workers at Wildlife SOS, that’s the silver lining: giving these rescued elephants the most effective life they will have post-captivity.
As a result of whereas rescue means freedom from chains for captive elephants, the fact is that their dependence on people, and the well being and psychological points they usually undergo on account of their captivity, imply they will by no means be launched again into the wild.
So they’re dropped at elephant sanctuaries like this one, the place they’re given shelter, care, medical consideration, and the chance to socialize and bond with different elephants. Locations the place they will merely be elephants once more.
“Once we…see them doing their pure actions by themselves, that’s the greatest a part of our on a regular basis.” Shivam Rai, Schooling & Conservation Officer, Wildlife SOS
Volunteering on the Wildlife SOS Elephant Sanctuary
In studying concerning the work of Wildlife SOS and the elephant sanctuary, we sat down with the centre’s floor workers to assist with one of many greatest duties of the day: slicing greens.
Wildlife SOS’s resident elephants every get via as much as 250 kilos of meals each single day. That’s a whole lot of fruit, veg and fodder.
We helped the keepers to clean, chop and weigh buckets of fruit and veg, earlier than transferring on to haul bales of grass for every elephant.
Assembly and dealing with Wildlife SOS’s floor workers is a crucial a part of the expertise. Lots of them have been as soon as elephant keepers working within the captive business.
Regardless of the circumstances, elephants and their keepers usually kind a bond, and as a part of Wildlife SOS’s efforts to shift livelihoods away from animal exploitation, they are going to often attempt to carry a rescued elephant’s keeper with them to the centre.
“They’ve not realized a distinct approach, however they nonetheless love the elephant quite a bit, so that they initially perhaps refuse to come back, however then…they’re drawn to the animal a lot that they arrive.” Gargi Sharma, Assistant Elephant Marketing campaign Officer, Wildlife SOS
As soon as on the centre, the keepers are rehabilitated too: receiving a secure wage and coaching within the humane therapy of the elephants of their care.
Alongside the keepers, volunteers additionally play an essential position on the sanctuary in Mathura, and anybody can enroll. Guests desirous to volunteer with the elephants at Wildlife SOS can cease by for a number of hours, a day, 5 days or extra.
Along with serving to feed the elephants, volunteers help with duties like cleansing the enclosures, serving to with upkeep of the services, prepping enrichment treats for the elephants, working within the workplace, and plenty extra.
One of many absolute highlights for me throughout our go to to the centre, was the possibility to muck in with the keepers and assist with the elephant bathing.
It was an unimaginable alternative to rise up shut and supply these as soon as uncared for animals with an expertise they love; bathing is an exercise elephants actively hunt down within the wild.
Regardless of the cheeky calls from the keeper to ‘scrub tougher’, the elephant below my sponge appeared to benefit from the expertise as a lot as me. Particularly afterwards, when she moved off to lash her shiny, clear again with trunkfuls of grime.
Supporting a Constructive Future for India’s Elephants
Every morning and afternoon, the elephants at Wildlife SOS depart their enclosures for walks with their keepers within the fields close to the centre.
It was right here, as I strolled with greatest mates Maya and Phoolkali, survivors of the circus and avenue begging, that I watched as Maya paused amidst the ocean of inexperienced leaves.
For many years earlier than her rescue and arrival on the sanctuary, she had recognized solely concern, ache and loneliness.
Whereas she would by no means be free once more within the true sense of the phrase, she was as near free as a former captive elephant might be. She may select to pause among the many leaves if she wished…till her keeper inspired her on, anyway.
I’d requested Shivam Rai earlier within the day what he would say to vacationers contemplating an elephant expertise on their travels. As I watched Maya gently touching the leaves together with her trunk, his phrases got here again to me:
“These animals, these are wild animals, and they don’t deserve captive life….as a traveller, please attempt to see what is going on.”
It was a easy message, however a robust one. Céline Cousteau made the same level about journey decisions and consciousness once I spoke together with her:
“I really feel in life we have now a whole lot of decisions to make, and as travellers, we have now a whole lot of affect that we will create in a constructive approach, for the wildlife and the folks within the locations that we journey.”
Maya’s identify means ‘phantasm’ in Hindi; a reputation that takes on a profound significance within the context of her life, and what we see and don’t see once we encounter captive elephants.
As travellers, it’s our responsibility to pay attention to the large image on the subject of wildlife tourism, and to make moral and compassionate decisions concerning the wildlife experiences we have now. Like refusing to go on an elephant journey, saying no to elephant trekking, selecting to not watch elephants being pressured to carry out.
With out demand, there is no such thing as a want for provide, and hopefully at some point, captive elephants can be a factor of the previous. Consciousness is essential, and the alternatives we make as accountable travellers go a great distance in serving to to make journey matter.
Danielle travelled via the Golden Triangle in India and skilled the work of Wildlife SOS on behalf of NOMADasaurus, and in collaboration with the TreadRight Basis and Trafalgar Journey, a member of The Journey Company. All ideas, emotions and opinions are her personal.