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Diwali special: Working with rescued elephants, sloth bears in Mathura

  • Wildlife SOS’ volunteering programmes give people a unique chance to work and interact with rescued elephants and sloth bears in Uttar Pradesh
  • Volunteers help with work at the elephant centre and bear rescue facility on alternate days

A Wildlife SOS volunteer coordinator takes visitors on a tour of the elephant centre
A Wildlife SOS volunteer coordinator takes visitors on a tour of the elephant centre (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

We are about a few hundred metres from Wildlife SOS’ Elephant Conservation and Care Centre (ECCC) in Mathura when we see an elephant, accompanied by a mahout, rushing in the direction of our taxi. Startled, we breathe a collective sigh of relief when the giant passes our vehicle. At the centre, a young volunteer coordinator tells us that a morning walk for the elephants is part of the routine.

Spread across 90 acres, including a state-of-the-art elephant hospital, the centre is home to 22 rescued elephants. We are just in time for the orientation session of our two-day, customized volunteer visit. While the non-profit offers a five-day volunteer programme at the ECCC and the nearby Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF) which houses sloth bears, volunteers can also get their visits customized. We are clubbed with a group of 10-12 volunteers from the UK, Australia and Brazil.

Day 1 at the ECCC begins with an introductory session about the two centres and the animals we will be interacting with. Volunteers usually spend alternate days working at the ECCC and ABRF, performing different tasks. We are divided into two groups: One group will assist the ECCC ground staff in making fodder for the elephants, the other will work inside the enclosures.

Sloth bears during a feeding session on an enrichment built by volunteers
Sloth bears during a feeding session on an enrichment built by volunteers (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Every elephant enclosure has a big pond, a favourite resting spot for the animals during summer. One of our first tasks is to clean these dry ponds, including removing the weeds.

While taking a break from his cleaning duties, Colin Fulton, a 64-year-old architect from the UK, tells me that with retirement around the corner, he intends to travel often and take part in more such activities. “Locally, in Dorset they have the Dorset Wildlife Trust. Each county has a wildlife trust. These tend to look after birds, lizards and other animals in that area. So, if you join these wildlife trusts, you can help out with making bird hides and cutting brush. You can do things back home if you want to, but it’s not on a scale we see here," says Fulton, who is volunteering along with his wife, Fiona, a former teacher.

Fiona explains that the UK has smaller animals—like hedgehogs—that need to be looked after. “I think we are very aware of the wildlife in the UK. It’s very precious to us and there are many projects (focused on wildlife), for animals like badgers. People get very nervous and angry if something happens to them," she adds.

At the ECCC, volunteers also participate in chopping fruits and help feed the animals twice a day. This involves unloading supplies from a delivery truck at a small storehouse behind the elephant enclosures. All the vegetables and fruits are weighed, and the details recorded in a register. These are then washed, rinsed and spread out on a big table. Bananas, corn, watermelons, pumpkins, apples and bottle gourd are chopped into sizes indicated by the staff and then divided into buckets that are labelled with the names of the elephants. Volunteers carry these buckets to the elephant enclosures and help the keepers with the feeding.

Each elephant has a strict diet plan and preferences. Some of them even get customized meals: Suzy, 70, one of the centre’s oldest elephants, is blind and does not have the molars needed to chew food. So, she is served a watermelon smoothie.

Volunteers chop fruits for the elephants at the centre
Volunteers chop fruits for the elephants at the centre (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)


During an afternoon break, most volunteers decide to take a quick nap at the centre’s observation deck as others learn how to knit coil rope baskets that will be used to hide food treats for the elephants in their enclosures. For Cecilia Germano Porto, a volunteer from Cumuruxatiba, Bahia, in Brazil, who is volunteering along with her friend, Rita Ruffato, this is a touching experience.

“I think it’s more personal. It is definitely an experience but we would like to see how an animal is rescued and what it takes to maintain them. We don’t have such foundations or organizations close to us, so we are conscious of our privilege of being here," says the 44-year-old educator. “I think nature doesn’t need our work. If we could just leave nature alone, it would be enough."

Before dusk, while the mahouts take the elephants out for their evening walk, we are tasked with cleaning their enclosures. We wear gloves to pick up decomposing hay, grass and, yes, droppings, which we load on to a small cart. Elephant poop is surprisingly not too smelly. Shivam Rai, a conservation officer and volunteer coordinator with Wildlife SOS, explains the animals are only able to digest around 50-60% of the food they eat. Once the enclosures are cleaned, the poop is then loaded on to a tractor and taken away for composting. “We use this compost to make natural fertilizer for our organic farm here," says Rai.

Rai, originally a civil engineer, joined Wildlife SOS in 2016. While volunteers from other countries frequent both the centres, he says, the same couldn’t always be said of Indian volunteers.

“We need our people to understand the work we are doing here. That’s very important. Three-four years ago, we weren’t seeing too much participation from Indian volunteers. But now we are seeing more interest from people in Delhi, Pune, Mumbai—they are coming in and helping us now," adds Rai.

There are 70 staff members at ECCC, while ABRF has 60 people on site. Rai, 29, says the presence of volunteers motivates the ground staff. “It’s an amazing experience to have volunteers helping us with the animals, but it gets challenging sometimes. There are often some over-enthusiastic people who we have to be careful with. They try and get too close to the animals," he explains. For instance, people often misread an animal’s behaviour. An elephant raising and turning its trunk doesn’t mean that it’s responding to you. Rai says it is a sign of territorial aggression and dominance.

Rai says as the centre expands in the future, they will need more participation from volunteers. “As we rescue more animals, we will need more volunteering hands. We are looking at universities that can send student groups. We are also looking at the field of veterinary sciences and encouraging students from local colleges and universities abroad to apply here as interns. This will help them learn hands-on with our vets."

A key point that is constantly reiterated is that volunteers must maintain a safe distance from the animals at all times. “A lot of these elephants were rescued from unimaginable situations. Some of them were being used for begging, some were kept captive in temples. They all have a traumatic past, which means they don’t trust most humans, except for their handlers who have been with them for years." Similar rules apply for volunteers who work at the ABRF.

Volunteers also become ambassadors in spreading awareness about animal abuse. One of the organization’s recent campaigns, for instance, encourages volunteers to refuse elephant rides.


Located in the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, near Agra, the ABRF is a 10- to 12- minute drive from the Wildlife SOS volunteer house. This is where we spend most of Day 2. Started in 2002, the facility is one of the oldest in Asia. The ABRF has two extensions: one of which is connected through the bird sanctuary’s main entrance. The other is situated across the Yamuna in the sanctuary’s Nagla Akos area.

The shaggy-coated sloth bears, classified as “vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List, were used by the Kalandar community for more than three centuries as performing bears. Their delicate muzzles would be pierced with hot iron spikes to fit a nose ring that was attached to a leash. To avoid being attacked or bitten, handlers would often remove the bears’ canines when they were young.

Today, the facility is home to more than 170 bears. The dancing bear industry became illegal when the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 came into effect. Since 1995, Wildlife SOS has rescued and rehabilitated more than 600 sloth bears.

At the ABRF, the bears live in artificial dens but also enjoy lush, open enclosures. They have lost all social and survival skills, Rai says, and “none of them can return to the wild".

Once inside the enclosures, the volunteers are split into two groups, and they begin constructing what are called enrichments, small wooden structures that the bears use to climb and play, an essential need for captive animals. Just like for the elephants, their keepers also use these enrichments to hide food treats.

Both groups are handed shovels, lengths of rope and wooden logs to figure out the best possible way of building a structure. Picking up the heavy wooden logs is an easy task, but tying them together and digging holes for the foundation requires strength. Rai, another volunteer and the keeper guide us.

Hours later, two structures are up. We are then escorted out of the enclosure, for the bears will soon make their way out of the dens for a feeding session. Sloth bears mostly eat fruits, ants and termites, but they are also very fond of honey.

The enclosure’s keeper ties enrichment balls to both structures. These balls are filled with dates and honey, which is also used to lace some bamboo logs. Big chunks of watermelon are also tied to the structure. We watch as three bears climb the structures looking for their treats.

Apart from the usual treats and fruit-feeding sessions, the bears are given a nutritious diet of multi-grain porridge. The two extensions of ABRF have dedicated kitchens that start cooking this porridge—using sorghum, cornmeal, soya, vegetables, dates and honey—from 4am.

At the end of Day 2, we return to the elephant centre. As the day draws to a close, the elephants are escorted out of the enclosures for their walk in batches. They make the most of this time: rubbing their bodies against trees, eating grass and walking freely. If they try to veer off course or walk too fast, their mahouts gently prompt them; the elephants respond with gentle strides.

As Rai explains, these are animals that cannot be returned to the wild. But they can be offered the next best thing.

“We cannot offer them what nature does. But at least we can give them the conditions and an atmosphere where they feel like an elephant again. People need to know this. When volunteers visit us here, they see all of this with their own eyes."


Money-wise: 20,000 (includes lodging, food, and travel to and from both centres) per volunteer for a five-day visit. Volunteering programmes can also be customized.

Need to know: Volunteers should have an interest in conservation and wildlife. You will need to be fit and able to tolerate high temperatures, humidity, and work well within a team.

You could also: If volunteering is not an option, you can even sponsor an animal—be it elephants, bears or leopards.

Essentials: Gloves are important since you will be lifting and moving things. A sunscreen and cap to protect yourself from the sun are also advised.

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