We visited Udaipur over the Diwali holiday, and I rode a camel and horse with my 3-year-old daughter. And saw an elephant begging in the streets. The whole thing left me uneasy. I really felt like an unthinking tourist that was doing stuff that was taking advantage of animals that were probably not well treated, just because it was a shiny object in front of us.
After that trip, I contacted a group called Wildlife SOS that protects Indian wildlife. I’ve learned so much in a short time.
Now first let me say – back in 2010, I traveled to Thailand and rode on an elephant’s back. I’m not perfect. And I’m not trying to be preachy. But when we know better, we do better, right?
I’ve learned so much about how elephant’s feet are not meant to be walking on the hot paved roads, how their bone structure cannot support the weight of multiple humans on those canopy things, how hooks and chains are used to break their spirit when they’re in captivity, how they’re now banned in the circus in India, and how they are incredibly social animals just like us. And more!
And this month, my daughter Leela and I made a pilgrimage to the Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura (close to Agra). What an amazing experience!!! You MUST visit! They have 21 elephants that have been rescued and are now able to socialize with other elephants, take baths, go for walks, receive veterinary care and eat nutritious food.
Leela and I flew from Mumbai to Delhi, and then took a car to Mathura. We stayed at the Volunteer House for the Elephant Conservation and Care Center, rather than a hotel. It was very clean and comfortable with a great bookshelf, wifi and we got a nice hot dinner. We also got to meet the other volunteers. One guy Thomas from New York is volunteering at the center for 6 months! A woman Kathleen from Canada has been a supporter of Wildlife SOS for years and finally made her first trip to India. A couple from Spain was also there. Very inspiring to chat with them! The Volunteer House has room for 30 people. I very much recommend staying there when you visit, because then more money is going towards the center, too. We got in later than expected (traveling with a toddler means lots of bathroom stops), and went straight to the volunteer house. Leela was happy to be out of the car, took a nice bucket bath, we looked at a book that shared the story of each of the elephants (their favorite foods, best friends, what their situation was before being rescued). We found out that Leela has a lot in common with elephants – likes bananas, watermelon, biscuits, swimming, playing with friends. Then we ate dinner and went to bed.
Time to see the elephants!
In the morning, Leela insisted on taking another bath, because she wanted to “look fresh for the elephants.” We ate breakfast and drove to the center with our guide Shiva. Shiva spent a few hours with us, telling us the stories of each elephant and explaining who owns the land, how they have created the elephant enclosures, what health problems the elephants have, and their plans for the future. Leela got to feed bananas to the elephants! She loved it! She was deeply moved to find out that the elephant Suzy was blind, she kept talking about it.
Shiva shared that having volunteers and visitors come to the center really helps to lift the spirits of all the permanent staff. They have 55 people working at the elephant center (about 3 per elephant), and they work HARD. They are cutting sugarcane, taking the elephants out for long walks, cleaning their enclosures, bathing them, all out in the HOT sun.
Wildlife SOS really focuses on education, so they are happy to have groups of visitors. They feel especially if the next generation is educated about these practices – elephants begging by temples, circus elephants, use of hooks and chains – that will change everything.
Elephants eat a LOT of food
Shiva explained to me the massive quantity of food needed to feed one elephant. An adult elephant will eat 300-500 pounds of food per day! I remember he said it costs 1 lakh per day to keep the whole operation running. The centre would love big donors but does a lot running off of many small donations. It was really inspiring to see – what a vision and what faith to create a place like this.
How to plan your visit
If you are traveling to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, you should definitely plan a visit to meet the gentle giants! You will also be able to see the Agra Bear Rescue Facility which is right down the road. I do recommend staying at the Volunteer House, but there are also hotels. I’d plan for at least 2 full days! There is a flight from Agra to Jaipur too, so this can be part of your Golden Triangle visit. You can talk directly to Wildlife SOS to coordinate your visit.
Please reach out if you have questions!