I’ve always thought of travel as therapy, a kind of exfoliator that erases greasy deposits of the mundane from my consciousness. Can there be anything better than finishing a trip feeling renewed and refreshed, I wondered.
In early 2015, I was exploring the Internet for a new kind of travel experience. I was looking, not just for a destination or great journey, but for an engagement that would surprise me. That’s when I came across an article written by a woman who had spent a week volunteering with the non-governmental organisation Wildlife SOS, at its Agra Bear Rescue Facility and Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, on the Agra-Mathura road. She described walking with elephants, helping the staff, and doing chores like preparing the animals’ feed—all while living near a jungle next to a river—and I knew immediately that this was what I had been seeking, even if just for a few days.
To nourish the bears at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, volunteers prepare food according to a weekly diet chart, which incorporates fruits and honey. Photo: Debarpita Banerjee
Soon after writing to Wildlife SOS to inquire about volunteering possibilities, I received an itinerary that seemed perfect for an immersive weekend. The Wildlife SOS guesthouse is a half-hour’s drive from Agra, three kilometres outside Sur Sarovar Bird Sanctuary where the Elephant Care and Conservation Centre is located. Driving down from Delhi through drizzly weather at the end of winter, I reached late in the day. The team made me feel welcome, showing me the fully-stocked kitchen where I could fix myself breakfast the next morning. I quickly settled in to rest before the big day.
I woke up early and excited, and headed to the centre. I didn’t want to be late for the sunrise walk with the elephants, which the staff told me was an experience not to be missed. There were butterflies in my stomach, and vague childhood memories of elephant stories from the Jataka Tales flitted through my head.
A mist hung in the air and from it five elephants emerged. They seemed to churn the air with their graceful, slow motion. They were accompanied by their caretaker, a former mahout, and a couple of staff members. I gingerly approached, and tried to walk alongside them. But Laxmi, the beautiful female elephant, instantly stopped, perhaps objecting to the intrusion by a stranger.
Early morning walks are the best time for volunteers to get acquainted with the sanctuary’s elephants. Photo: Debarpita Banerjee
Following the staff’s instructions, I gathered some courage and stretched my hand up to her trunk. She calmly took my petting and we broke the ice. As soon as I was comfortable, one of the two staff members returned to the sanctuary, and I took his place. It was fascinating to walk with the elephants as they took their morning exercise. Whenever they stopped, instead of the poking or prodding they might have faced previously, the mahout lured them on with glucose biscuits. The elephants finished their walk, one treat at a time, and I spent the rest of the morning chopping bucketfuls of fruits to feed the centre’s 15 elephants. How daintily the elephants grabbed tiny pieces of melon with their trunks before tucking them into their mouths. If only my dog was this well behaved, I thought, as I watched the group eating, playing in the mud, and visibly smiling through it all.
The bear rescue centre, which I visited the next day, was a 15-minute drive away, a bit closer to Agra. Here, 224 performing bears rescued from around the country have found a loving home. I watched the documentary that described the conditions from which they were saved. Some of the bears are so conditioned by their past that they still stand up to dance at the sight of a camera (which is why photography is mostly prohibited). Some have been so traumatised, that they shy away at the sight of humans, while others cannot bear loud noises. Many bears have lost their eyesight from constant blows to the head they were subjected to as cubs.
But this is a sanctuary, a place of hope, where the horrid past the bears survived is far behind. Now, living in a place of immense greenery, the bears spend their days snoozing peacefully in caves or comfortable pits full of hay, climbing trees, playing, and looking forward to wholesome meals.
In some parts of the rescue centre, volunteers have dug pits and filled them with hay for the bears to loll about. Photo: Debarpita Banerjee
If I were to chronicle each of my experiences with the animals, the descriptions would spiral into a gushing rhapsody. I spent two days at Wildlife SOS’s bear and elephant centres, in a beautiful jungle, in the company of people who firmly believe in the peaceful cohabitation of humans and animals.
I watched bears hang from trees and play little games as I crossed the section of the Yamuna that runs through the centre on a boat. Many rescue stories and anecdotes I heard, moved me deeply. And in between all the learning, I also gained a restful respite from my hectic, smog-filled city life. Driving back home, I realised that this short trip was as much a journey on the road as it was within my soul. I also discovered that choosing a holiday away from the ordinary can be much more than a break from routine or a few days of bliss. It can give you goosebumps and leave you with a long-lasting feeling of warmth.
Read an interview with Wildlife SOS’s Kartick Satyanarayan here.
Volunteers can visit Wildlife SOS’s elephant and bear sanctuaries for a week. A week-long stay, including three meals and accommodation at the volunteer rest house is ₹20,000 (for foreigners $100 a day and $500 for a week). There are also day visits ($100 for foreigners and ₹4,500 for Indians. Booking in advance is mandatory.
Typically, volunteers go on sunrise and sunset walks with the elephants, help prepare the animals’ meals and bathe them. They also build hammocks for the bears and help distribute their food. They may also get to assist experts during special rescue projects, brainstorm about fundraising and animal wellbeing, and do other odd jobs. The volunteer’s duties can be modified based on individual interests. For example, zoology students or aspiring vets can also help with medical services.
More information is available on the organisation’s website (http://wildlifesos.org/; 97562 05080). The sanctuary spends a large sum of money every day on feeding its animals, providing medical facilities, funding rescue operations, and helping with rehabilitation of the Kalandar families who used to earn a living by making bears dance. A board outside Wildlife SOS’s gift shop says “Buy a t-shirt, feed a bear”. But buying yourself a holiday while helping to fund the centre is even better.
has been a marketing and communication professional for close to two decades now. Most recently she worked at the National Geographic Channel in India. She is an animal lover, keen on a world where both can co-exist without harming the other. She tweets as @thetravelshrink.
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