Now a robust and playful pair of Asian elephants housed at a sprawling sanctuary in Mathura, India, Maya and Phoolkali are far removed from their old lives.
Before, infected wounds and leathery hides stretched over bone were only part of their harrowing experience. However, Wildlife SOS, a nonprofit organization based in Salt Lake City that focuses on the rehabilitation of mistreated animals, provided them with a safe, new home.
The Wildlife SOS initiative known as the Captive Elephants Welfare Project outfitted their new home with a mud bath, leafy greens to munch on, roughly a dozen acres to roam freely on, and access to their very own hospital.
“India is home to about 60% of the world’s Asian elephants,” says Kip Peterson, the director of advocacy for Wildlife SOS. “But many are subject to constant abuse [at the hands of their owners] and lack adequate medical attention. As a result, there has been a big drop in the number of Asian elephants around today.”
Abuse and other illegal acts have decimated the population, according to Kartick Satyanarayan, founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS.
“In the past 100 years, 95% of the world’s Asian elephants have been removed due to poaching and mistreatment,” says Satyanarayan.
Peterson and Satyanarayan suggest the reason for this behavior is due to a lack of economic prospects.
“The owners or handlers of these animals are typically using them as a source of income,” says Peterson.
Whether it’s giving rides to tourists, lugging timber, or caging them for religious and ceremonial purposes, many people in India exploit animals as a means of survival.
“Very often, [the handlers] don’t have another source of income they can readily turn to,” notes Peterson.
But that isn’t a reason to treat these animals poorly, says Satyanarayan, adding that most of the elephants come to the sanctuary malnourished, toting extremely infected wounds on their feet.
As a result, Wildlife SOS aims to close the gap between the atrocities committed against these animals and the care they need.
“We want to bring an end to the poor treatment they are getting,” says Peterson. “That means making adequate medical care more accessible is a priority. In Mathura, [India], we’ve built the largest elephant hospitals and enclosures in the country.”
However, Peterson says they want to expand on the work they’ve done.
“There’s always a need for more resources and more space,” he says.
In their sprawling rehabilitation and rescue center, Wildlife SOS also houses the oft-mistreated Indian sloth bear. Much like the handlers who mistreated their elephants, handlers of these sloth bears have been known to exploit them for economic reasons.
The handlers disfigure the bears so they can attach a leash-like device to their snouts, explains Peterson. He says the immense pain caused by the device forces the bear to dance and move at the handler’s behest. The handler will then take the animal and put on public shows, for which people can pay mere rupees to see the “dancing bear.”
Wildlife SOS rescues these bears from their abusive handlers, but they don’t stop there.
“We retrain these handlers and help them find another means of income,” says Peterson.
Instead of leaving these handlers embittered and jobless, Wildlife SOS has helped many handlers pivot from the mistreatment of animals to other sources of income like peddling spices, textiles, or becoming a tuk-tuk or cab driver.
In the case of the elephant handlers, some of those who previously mistreated their animals have been rehabilitated themselves, choosing to care for the elephants under the watchful eye of Wildlife SOS.
“To stop the cycle, we have to look at the bigger picture,” says Peterson.
And re-educating and re-arming handlers to be productive members of society is critical.