Saving India's wildlife

WSOS India was founded by Mr Kartick Satyanarayan and Ms Geeta Seshamani (above) in 1995.
PHOTO: Tabla

Ms Geeta Seshamani have been working on projects to protect India's wildlife, studying biodiversity and creating sustainable livelihoods for poaching communities.

The duo, who founded Wildlife SOS (WSOS) India in 1995, were in Singapore from Sept 3 to 8 at the invitation of BridgeAble, a social enterprise that connects donors to causes. They spoke about their wildlife conservation efforts at the Keep Wildlife Wild! art and photography exhibition, organised by BridgeAble on Sept 5 and 6.

About 130 art pieces and photographs were put up for auction and the proceeds from the sale went to WSOS.

On Sept 3, they also gave a talk at the Singapore American School on elephant and bear conservation and wildlife trafficking.

Headquartered in Delhi with 10 animal rehabilitation centres all over India, the non-governmental organisation is known for "eradicating the centuries-old abusive practice of dancing bears completely in India".

"The Kalandar tribe (a nomadic gypsy tribe) would buy poached sloth bear cubs and resort to cruel techniques to make them perform and dance for tourists, making money out of it. But we're very happy that it's now a thing of the past," said Ms Seshamani.

Between 2002 and 2009, WSOS rescued over 627 bears from these tribes and put them in its rehabilitation centres all over India such as the Agra Bear Rescue Facility and Van Vihar Bear Rescue facility, among others.

"As we didn't want to leave behind any legacy of this barbaric practice", WSOS also provided rehabilitation programmes for the Kalandars after they surrendered the bears. "We wanted them to learn new trades and earn an income through legal means so we assisted them in the purchase of stalls so they can sell goods in the rural areas," explained Ms Seshamani.

The team also gave women vocational training in embroidery, stitching, jewellery-making and bag-making among others, so that they can start a business to be secondary earners in their families.

"We wanted to create sustainable solutions so they wouldn't return to the dancing bear trade again," explained Mr Satyanarayan.

The team, consisting of 200 permanent staff, also receives about 300 calls a month for reptile rescue. The most recent, in August this year, involved a tip-off about snake charmers near temples in Agra. A rescue team from the WSOS Agra Bear Rescue facility, members of the Forest Department and the local police were dispatched to the scene.

During the raid, which lasted almost an entire day, 33 snakes were rescued and taken to the WSOS centre in Delhi.

The snakes were found in "horrible condition, with stitched mouths, smashed fangs and gouged-out venom glands".

They are currently being treated and cared for under the observation of the veterinary team at WSOS, to determine whether they should be released back into their natural habitat.

A more large-scale operation involves the rescue of 19 elephants since 2009.

In April, four elephants were rescued from the Moonlight Circus in Nanded. Their front and back legs were restrained when they weren't performing and were given little opportunity to exercise. Their mental and physical health were also very poor, having been brutally abused for the purpose of entertainment.

WSOS had to work with the state forest department, district administration and police to rescue and take them to the WSOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura. Mr Satyanarayan shared: "For many years, the elephant keepers had used fear and pain to make these elephants perform.

"We had to change that when we rescued them so we started using a new method called positive reinforcement. We used kindness and rewards to make them understand desirable behaviour such as allowing us to treat their feet and letting us check their temperatures."

Their efforts have paid off. The rescued elephants, once fearful and aggressive towards anyone who came near them, now allow their nails to be trimmed and to be treated.

Mr Satyanarayan hopes to change the way elephants are handled in India by setting up an elephant keeper training school in future. "It will be based on scientific information of elephant management that are internationally acceptable so it will stop keepers from abusing elephants. The school will certify them as trained and humane elephant keepers."

WSOS, which has registered charities in the UK and the US, also conducts awareness programmes in rural and urban communities all over India to educate people on habitat conservation, how to avoid negative encounters with animals and anti-poaching.

It also has volunteer programmes at its elephant and bear sanctuaries. Those who are interested can find out more from its website.

"To be able to change people's mindset, to see an animal released back into the wild, to be able to create sustainable solutions makes what we do very worth it. It's rewarding to be a change-making organisation," said Mr Satyanarayan.

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