About 45 minutes outside of Agra, India is Wildlife SOS. Wildlife SOS is an organization that has been saving and rehabilitating sloth bears (dancing bears) and elephants in Agra, and many other animals throughout India. A group of 7 Americans came to volunteer for a week in June. June is definitely not the best time to come to India to work outside, but it was worth it to see how happy god’s creatures are to be free and not mistreated anymore. Many of you may have heard about the story of Raju, the elephant, on the news and this famous elephant was at the sanctuary!
It is incredible work Wildlife SOS does daily to maintain and run these establishments. It was an eye-opening and once in a life time experience. I will break down each days activities, and if you or a group are interested in volunteering you will have an idea of day-to-day procedures and life at Wildlife SOS.
Now, without further ado … Volunteering at Wildlife SOS through the eyes of the wanderlusting yogi
I took a car from Agra (about 45 minutes) to Wildlife SOS guesthouse in Astha City, Sunday evening. Astha City is actually a gated community, which is nice to feel safe in such a run down area. This is a new development, which will eventually become a middle class Indian community. Only a few residents live there and Wildlife SOS has two guesthouses across from each other.
I played catch with a cricket ball with the neighborhood kids! Lots of smiles all around, and some English lessons … “My turn”
It is slowly being built up. The power does go off approximately 15 hours a day, so don’t be alarmed when the lights go out. There are certain things on back-up generators, such as fans, which was a life saver in the heat!
Wildlife SOS’ guesthouse is a two-story house with 6 bedrooms. Each bedroom either has two or three beds and a bathroom en suite. They have air cooling devices outside of each window that you have to fill with water a couple of times a day. In the middle of summer, it did not cool very well. It was HOT HOT HOT! A reason why most volunteers do not come in the summer. There was a kitchen and clothes washer upstairs, and couches/chairs with t.v. downstairs. It really was a nice place. If it had air conditioning, it would have been perfect for our group! Wildlife SOS also provides breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast you have to make (eggs, toast, cereal), lunch is ate at the sanctuaries, and dinner is delivered to the house in the evening. They served a lot of the same vegetarian Indian food (without much spice, they didn’t think us Westerners could handle the heat), so be prepared for your palate to get bored. Dominoes pizza does deliver and we did find ourselves ordering pizza as a side to our Indian food one night. A much needed change!
Day 1 @ Sloth Bear Facility
Wildlife SOS picked us up from the guesthouse every morning and took us to the Sloth Bear facility. We began our day with a brief history of the organization and then orientation of what we would be doing as volunteers. We learned there were 224 bears and 18 elephants we would be helping! After our meeting, we went into a bear enclosure where we met Hatim, the bear keeper of this section. He put us all to work right away. He did not speak much English, but he could always get his point across.
I helped to build a bear fort, digging holes for the logs and learning to tie a lot of rope knots. I had never built anything before, so I was extremely proud of what I was capable of doing!
After building, we went and helped deliver porridge to the bears and clean the pots and pans when we were finished.
Day 2 @ Sloth Bear Facility
We started the day back in our same bear enclosure with Hatim. Today we ended up raking A LOT and some helped clean the bear pool. We delivered breakfast porridge and cut up fruit, which we delivered for a mid-morning snack. The afternoon was inside the air-conditioned break room making edible toys using grass, filled with dates and nuts. We also filled bamboo shoots with honey to hang in the bear’s enclosure. When we were finished, we walked around delivering the goodies and the bears sure did LOVE them!
Day 3 @ Elephant Facility
We arrived at the elephant facility and right away (in the direct sunlight) a couple of us went to clean the LARGE in-ground elephant pool. The four of us almost died that day, and how ironic in a pool. We used small hoes to scrap up elephant poop and dirt, then swept the rest of the dust. It was by far the worst part of the week (again only because we were there in June). Here are a few pictures of the crew in the pits of hell … don’t be fooled by our smiles … heat exhaustion just looks good on us .. and yes, one of the volunteers was hiding against the wall to get “cool”!
After almost dying, we regrouped and got to give a couple of the elephants baths. This was an amazing opportunity to be so close and intimate with these gigantic creatures. It also felt extremely refreshing to get completely soaked from head to toe.
The afternoon consisted of feeding the elephants mangoes and bananas, and watching the veterinarian give vaccinations to a couple of the female elephants and learning how and why they are being vaccinated.
Day 4 @ Elephant Facility
Elephant walk day! We woke up extra early and went on around a 2 hour elephant walk. The elephants are not tied or chained, just free to walk as they please. Their keepers call them and they trek over to meet us by the gate of the facility. It was absolutely indescribable how smart the elephants were. We were able to take pictures along the way, feed them, and simply love them. There were two groups that went out, all females, because the males are in musth (heat) and were not allowed out because their behavior could be irrational. Typical males!
Here is a glimpse of the elephant walk …
After the walk, myself and one other volunteer washed and cut up fruit for snack. We ended up playing a real life “fruit ninja” (the cell phone game), and got one of the volunteer coordinators to join in on our fun …
After feeding the fruit, we bathed the elephants and watched Raju get all his wounds taken care of on his legs from the spikes and chains he had in his legs before coming to Wildlife. They have been working on healing his ailments for over a year with daily treatments. It is a miracle Wildlife SOS saved him when they did!
Day 5 @ Elephant Facility
Real heat exhaustion was setting in on all seven of us. We woke up early again and went on a 2 hour walk with the elephants. Half the crew went back to the house and the rest stayed to wash and cut the fruit, and fed the snacks before we returned to the guesthouse. Having some time to relax was much-needed. We ended up finding a real cricket bat and everyone went outside to play with the neighborhood kids. It was a wonderful time for everyone, and you can tell by the smiles on everyone’s face! A smile truly is a universal sign of happiness!
Following our cricket game, my friend and I had planned to venture out and try a roadside cafe with the volunteer coordinator. Now, we were told by a high school student at the airport to not eat the roadside food or you will die. We figured if we have survived this far into India, why not give it a try! We went to Akashdeep Dhaba and got Kingfisher Extra Strong beer, salad (cut up vegetables dipped in a brown spice and salt), paneer masala and butter naan. We didn’t eat a lot of it, but it was a fun experience, especially when the lights would go out and it was completely dark!
If you are looking to volunteer in a country that is full of beautiful chaos, then Wildlife SOS is a perfect location. I would love to come back one day, but not in the summer, or January, since I was told a fog comes over the area and you cannot see the bears in their cages and a 20 minute drive can take an hour.
If you are interested in Wildlife SOS and have any questions or would like more information about this amazing organization, please contact me and I would love to help guide you in the right direction!
www.wildlifesos.org ($510 per person for a week … includes housing, breakfast/lunch/dinner, and Wildlife SOS t-shirt … amazing experiences and great people)
Rustic Pathways and Teachers Go Global (volunteer/travel organizations) have been there to volunteer, if you are looking for an organization to go through.