Here’s the thing: there’s no ignoring the fact that in India, animals are deeply respected.
It’s embedded in the culture of the people; how cows are regarded as sacred and roam the streets freely and how each family that has a roof over their heads – no matter how poor – make it a point to give the first meal of the day to a wandering cow, dog or pig.
There are challenges for sure: overpopulation, poverty and poor sanitation are a few. Travellers witness these all too obviously when they walk the streets but without understanding the country’s ethos regarding animals, it is easy to make only negative assumptions.
Dera Amer – Elephant Sanctuary
Surrounded by the Aravelli Hills and Nahargarh National Park, a 160-acre wilderness camp was set up as an animal sanctuary, focusing on elephants. Known as Dera Amer (dera meaning camp and Amer a reference to the Amer Fort it sits behind), the facility is private property owned by a family that shunned real-estate development and instead, devoted their time and attention to the rescue and well-being of animals.
Tourism plays an incidental part of Dera Amer. The place resembles more like an exclusive private wilderness club, an oasis of luxury that appears as if out of nowhere after driving through miles of desert roads. Upon arrival, you’re greeted by a majestic (an obviously pampered) pachyderm, a Mahout sitting atop her in full Rajasthani regalia.
Visitors are offered a drink and a chance to get to know the elephants better. When I arrived, only one other family of four was there, talking to the guides and helping to feed and bathe one of the three elephants there.
“Do they like being here,” I asked one of the guides who turned out to be a nephew of Dera Amer’s owner ( so was the other guide; they like to keep it all in the family here).
He explained that the animals in the facility were all either rescued from unethical businesses or fostered from owners who are unable to care for them in the best ways.
“Here they get to eat well, relax and don’t work for more than three to four hours a day,” he shares. “Even work is kind of a misnomer; it’s more like spending time with people, which they are already used to and enjoy.”
While it would be nice to return the animals to the wild, doing so indiscriminately wouldn’t help animals who were either bred in captivity or are too used to human company and interaction that they would not be able to fend for themselves.
We started to give an “elephant spa” treatment to our friend Golobul, 39 years old and overly friendly. As we used cool water from a hose and some scrubbing brushes to exfoliate the hard skin on her trunk, she playfully reached out as if to splash us with the trickling water.
After that it was time for the “elephant makeover”. Golobul stood sleepily as we applied non-toxic water-based paints in random swirls and whorls all over her trunk and sides.
“Is she ok with this?” I kept asking. I knew all about the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals; attempting to humanize them or their experience is controversial.
But it was quite apparent that our ministrations aren’t causing them any distress or harm. If anything, Golobul welcomed our company. When it was time to ride atop her, I asked about the howdah or carrying contraption on her back.
“She only gives rides once or twice a day and the seat is well padded and comfortable,” explained the mahout. “It’s like you carrying a backpack and walking around.”
Considered light exercise for the 6,000 pound creature, the “safari” around the camp took about 20 minutes of trekking through the bush where we saw other interesting wildlife, namely birds and other peafowl as well as the tranquil surrounds.
We were asked if we wanted to stay atop Golobul for longer but we declined, opting instead to enjoy some refreshingly good Nimbu Pani (and later, their excellent Northern Indian buffet spread – all made with ingredients fresh from their own farm). As we rested in the comfortable shade of Dera Amer’s lunch pavilion, so did the elephants in their own, napping away and sheltered from the heat of the Rajasthani sun.