SPAN March/April 2010
Americans are donating their skills in media and information technology and raising funds for Wildlife SOS, which rescues sloth bears, peacocks, and all kinds of wildlife in India.
Grab your helmet and get on the bike,” shouted Wildlife SOS rescuer Sanjay Acharya to Jon Dunn, an American volunteer visiting India for the first time. The two were off to a Vodafone store in Noida, just outside New Delhi. The Wildlife SOS helpline had received a frantic call from the store manager that a “large crocodile type of animal” was loose on its premises and the store employees feared for their lives and were concerned for the safety of what Wildlife SOS suspected was a monitor lizard.
After flying over flyovers on the back of a two-wheeler in New Delhi traffic, Dunn looked like he had seen a ghost, but there was no time for personal trauma. The two arrived and were immediately pointed to a stairwell piled with garbage. Acharya began his search.
“I think the employees of the store were slightly perplexed as to who I was, possibly assuming I was some sort of expert,” says Dunn. “I have never seen a monitor lizard in real life and I was a bit worried that when I saw the lizard I might scream.”
Acharya noticed a small hole in the corner of a door leading to a rooftop and there was a streak in the dust that looked like a lizard tail. The two climbed to the rooftop; but after three hours of diligence, the search was called off.
“Still, I found it really heartening to see these folks look to the helpline of Wildlife SOS as a first option,” says Dunn. “Indians see wildlife as something to be protected. Not too many years ago, the first choice would not have been to call a helpline but to take matters into their own hands. It goes to show the hard work of organizations like Wildlife SOS is really paying off!”
Dunn and his colleague, Kate Schnepel, spent a month recently in India volunteering with Wildlife SOS. Schnepel is the communications director and Dunn is “the Facebook dude” for Best Friends, an animal sanctuary set in a scenic canyon in southern Utah. In their free time, they serve on the board of directors of Wildlife SOS U.S., an NGO set up specifically to help Wildlife SOS India.
Wildlife SOS India co-founders Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani have traveled the world and infected animal lovers with their enthusiasm for saving the sloth bear from the practice of bear dancing. Since 1995, Wildlife SOS has worked with the Kalandar community, for whom it has been a tradition for centuries to exploit these bears, to establish them in an alternative livelihood that doesn’t involve exploiting animals. They have also worked to save leopards from fearful farmers.
In the United States, the two have conducted lectures, campaign walks and fundraisers at the Miami Zoo, Seattle Zoo, Park City, Utah, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah and the University of Georgia in Atlanta. Many of their listeners walk away wanting to help. One was Schnepel.
Schnepel has worked 10 years in animal welfare and believed she had a skill to offer.
“The organization that Kartick and Geeta co-founded has almost ended the brutal practice of dancing bears and continues to fight all across the country for animals of all kinds,” says Schnepel. “Regardless of how many hours, how many endless bureaucratic phone calls, how many train rides and plane trips are required to save the wild animals they love, their conviction never flags. Their devotion and charm have won them fans and supporters across the globe. In fact, they have been so busy doing the work that they haven’t had a chance to tell their story and that’s what we help them do.”
So far, Wildlife SOS U.S. has raised $400,000 to purchase critical sloth bear and leopard habitat land in Karnataka, a diesel generator for one of the rescue center hospitals, veterinary supplies for the working elephants welfare program and vehicles. They even do volunteer work—virtually. The team has redesigned the Wildlife SOS India Web site and added thousands of names to its fundraising database. On a daily basis, they monitor the organization’s Web site, Facebook and Twitter traffic.
In fact, Satyanarayan went from no virtual presence to winning second place last year at the Shorty Awards for the best NGO tweets (Twitter.com/WildlifeSOS). He has more than 5,000 followers.
“With Twitter, supporters feel that they know you and they feel involved at every step,” he says.
A typical tweet from Satyanarayan: Call from Okhla police post. Apparently constable has two snakes in his room and feels surrounded. WSOS team en route to the rescue :-/
Schnepel and Dunn had one memorable experience after another during their stay in India, but the highlight was witnessing the surrender of what they hope are the last dancing bears in India. Wildlife SOS operates bear rescue and rehabilitation facilities in Agra, Bangalore, Bhopal and Purulia in West Bengal where the dancing bear owners can surrender them, and in return, receive a cash payment as well as training in a new vocation and sometimes even a job. The bears, meanwhile, go through a thorough medical examination and live the rest of their lives on the spacious and peaceful land at the sanctuary.
“We saw their ropes removed, and their new lives begin. Incredibly, I was even lucky enough to take part in one of the rope cutting procedures, and used a scalpel to slice through a muzzle rope that had held a bear captive for five miserable years,” says Schnepel.
With that feather in their cap, the wildlife volunteers are looking forward.
“Now that the last dancing bear has been rescued, it’s imperative that we engage our supporters in helping us care for the bears long term,” says Schnepel. “It costs about 15,000 rupees per month, per bear, for us to care for them in our rescue centers, and we have hundreds of bears in residence. It’s a tall order. In addition, we need to continue our anti-poaching work as well as our work to help educate the Kalandar children, empower the Kalandar women and help the Kalandar men earn a livelihood through alternative means, without exploiting wildlife. Finally, one of our primary goals this year is to improve the facilities for the rescued leopards at the rehab center in Junnar, Maharashtra and expand our education program there to help mitigate leopard-human conflict.”
Their goal: raise $200,000 this year to improve the leopard sanctuary in Junnar.
“Leopards have been an integral part of India’s environment, helping to maintain nature’s delicate balance,” says Satyanarayan. “Today their existence is in peril and they are misunderstood because of human ignorance, lack of tolerance and lack of awareness. As humans took over their habitat for farming, cattle and other activities, the leopards had nowhere to go and their prey decreased due to hunting by humans, immigration and lack of food. Therefore, leopards had no choice but to live on cattle and domestic livestock while seeking refuge in sugarcane fields. As a result, the leopards came into direct conflict with humans who killed them to protect their livestock and demanded their trapping and removal if seen in their fields. Besides that, leopards are poached illegally for their skin and body parts which fetch a high price in the black market for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Yet it is not difficult for humans and leopards to coexist in the same region and this is what Wildlife SOS is striving to achieve.”
Wildlife SOS collaborates with the Maharashtra State Forest Department to run the leopard rescue and rehabilitation center in Junnar where they provide treatment and care for 29 leopards. They want to expand in order to take in another 20 leopards housed in small cages. Often the cats spend up to three years in cages the size of a dining table, according to Satyanarayan. Their dream is to make an indoor-outdoor facility cum educational center at Junnar.
Working with the humans involved is always a priority for Wildlife SOS so they are expanding their efforts to sensitize local people on how to avoid the leopards. Their messages are: 1) Do not go near them or try to shoo them away when a leopard is protecting her cubs. 2) If you spot a leopard in your sugarcane field, just leave a small area of sugarcane uncut and it will retreat into that and not bother you. Do not ask for the leopard to be trapped or removed. 3) Do not go to answer the call of nature alone and without a light at night in a field as you could be mistaken for a prey animal by a leopard prowling the area. Have one or two people go with you and speak in loud voices to announce your presence. 4) Do not leave young children outside the house and unwatched at dawn, dusk or night.
While in India, Schnepel and Dunn visited three of the four bear sanctuaries and the leopard sanctuary in Junnar, and took thousands of photos to use in printed materials and the new Web site, as well as video footage. Schnepel had one important observation about how the United States and India approach animal protection.
In the United States, “people who work in animal welfare often blame or belittle people who don’t treat animals the way they themselves would,” remarks Schnepel. “In India, it was so refreshing and inspiring to see an approach that helps people as well as animals, and even involves those people in the solution.”
Sometimes those people are at very high levels.
“One of our last days in Delhi, we got to participate in the release of several snakes, including a spectacled cobra, and four wild peacocks who had been removed from the grounds of the prime minister’s residence, where they lived as they were free ranging birds.... It was refreshing to see how the staff from the PM’s residence kept following up with Wildlife SOS about the health status of the peacocks that were under treatment,” recalled Schnepel. “They had all spent time recuperating under the watchful eyes of the Wildlife SOS staff, and were now ready to thrive in the wild again. Being there as these animals slithered and flew back to freedom was something I won’t forget.”