In September, 2018 I was grateful to be able to travel to India, to be a part of a project with Treadright, Contiki Cares and Wildlife SOS, to help raise awareness to travel ethically, and spread the word about the plight of elephants in entertainment in India.
With a passionate team under our belt, we met up with Wildlife SOS Founders Geeta and Kartick, two of the most driven and inspiring people I have ever met, and they filled us in on the challenges and successes they have had over the years in their attempt to get elephants out of abusive situations in India.
They explained how ignorance and a lack of awareness have resulted in the continuous enslavement of these animals as working elephants – to beg, for display in temples, for performances and entertainment, ceremonies and physical labour. Wildlife SOS set up a refuge for elephants once rescued in 2009, called the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, in Mathura.
We were there to share the story both good and bad, so the next day we headed to Amber Fort to see and document what was happening there with elephants.
Upon getting to Amber Fort, I immediately felt my heart sink in my chest, I knew it was going to be hard to see, but I also knew how important it was for me to share this story with my audience. I took some photos and put my sunglasses on because it upset me so much I cried as I filmed what we saw. These elephants were slaves, with chains around their necks, colourful paint on their faces, and huge structures on their back for people to sit on. They stood in glaring heat while their owners sat on their backs, waiting for their turn to put tourists on for a ride up to the temple.
The saddest part was the look in these elephant’s eyes, not to mention the zip ties through their ears, the way they couldn’t stand on some of their feet and the fact they hung their heads, not allowed to communicate or even look at the other elephants. They had no spirit left. The owners used bull hooks, and other poles with sharp ends, they sat on the back of the elephant’s necks, kicked behind their ears and yelled when they wanted them to move forward. Once it was their turn to take tourists for a ride, they went over to the area where people climbed aboard, and they walked up the concrete path to the temple, in glaring heat, their eyes closing and their walk slow from exhaustion.
I had a fire in me to share this story as far as I could. One of the owners asked me to pat his elephant, I stood there and put my hand between her eyes, running my hand down her trunk and just said “I’m sorry” and started crying. Humans have a lot to learn and a long way to come to make up for what they do to animals. I went live on my Instagram to share this, which was one of the hardest things I have done but sharing this was so important.
The next day, we travelled to Mathura, where we would visit the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre set up by Wildlife SOS in 2009. This centre aims to rehabilitate severely abused captive elephants in distress. There are 20 elephants in care here, these elephants used to spend their days doing hard work in often harsh conditions. They are now living out their retirement years in peace and safety. No longer forced to bear heavy loads, or walk on hot pavements, these majestic creatures are finally able to spend their days happily, with frequent baths, a nutritious diet, and good veterinary care.
The team here at the centre were incredible, passionate people who were inspiring in their passions for making India a better place for elephants. After speaking with a few different carers and volunteers, you could see the passion from Founders Geeta and Kartick, filtered through into the hearts of all the volunteers.
We got to help out cutting up fruit and veggies for the elephant’s lunch meals, along with collecting green fodder for them, and finally we got to help bathe them. This was my favourite part of the whole day, helping to wash these gentle giants, and watching them roll around under the hose like playful puppies was so incredible. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I got to help wash 3 different elephants, before giving them some pumpkin I had chopped up earlier. This was the first time I have had up close and personal experiences with elephants, and to see them overcoming lifetimes of fear and anxiety, developing natural instincts to be playful and loving, was heart-warming.
We ended the day with a walk through the paddocks where I was able to walk with Phoolkali and Maya. They cruised around munching on the grass, the trees, and rubbing up against trees. I had a moment with Phoolkali, she approached me and reached her trunk out. She is blind in one eye, and I just stood still and let her check me out.
I can’t express my appreciation for Contiki Cares, Treadright and Wildlife SOS for their efforts in spreading these messages and for their hard work. I was so grateful to be a part of this project and will always share the message #RefuseToRide for elephants globally.