Kartick Satyanarayan

I think all I've ever wanted to do was to work with animals, work in the forest, and help conserve nature. And that's all I've done. So to be honest, I have done everything I've ever wanted. I think I feel really lucky that in this lifetime I've been given an opportunity to do exactly what I wanted. I've lived my dream. I've realised every single one of my dreams.

Kartick Satyanarayan

 

CEO and Co-Founder of Wildlife SOS

Episode 74 – Kartick Satyanarayan from Wildlife SOS

 

In our 74th episode we loved chatting with Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-Founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS.

Theme: Getting to live your dream.

 

We talk about:

🐻 His decision to use his life to protect nature and give something back.

🐻 Helping communities to realise their dreams so they no longer need sloth bears to make a living.

🐻 And getting infected by a disease called “Not knowing how to say no to an animal in distress!” – it’s very infectious and doesn’t let go of you.

Bio

Kartick is often referred to as the ‘Bear Man of India’ for his efforts to put an end to the illegal practice of ‘dancing bears’ in India. He is now focused on tackling Bear conservation issues through biodiversity conservation, protecting habitat and creating bear conservation and education programs to mitigate bear human conflict in India.

In 1995, he founded charity Wildlife SOS India www.wildlifesos.org  with Geeta Seshamani that runs several projects to support Bear conservation in India including the largest rehabilitation centre in the world for sloth bears. Wildlife SOS works with indigenous communities and in partnership with the Indian Government to tackle the increasing bear human conflict through awareness.

Wildlife SOS has also been rescuing and rehabilitating captive elephants in India since 2009 and has since provided a safe haven to over 25 elephants.

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James:

So as a young boy, Kartick, what was your inspiration for doing what you do now?

 

Kartick:

Well, from when I was a really young boy, I was crazy about animals. I think the beauty of the natural world fascinated me, you know, right from little bugs and worms and snakes, butterflies, everything. You know, I was curious as hell. I wanted to learn more. And I think that curiosity and that hunger to learn more about what was around me about nature, it just made me very keen to spend as much time as possible and I must say that I have to give my parents credit for tolerating my ridiculous curiosity and not swatting me and asking me to shut up. But instead they didn't discourage me at all. I think most parents in my time would discourage their children and just want them to study and be good in class and stuff like that.

 

I was a good student, but I also did everything. I mean, everything I've ever wanted to do, I've always been able to do. And I think I've been really fortunate. My parents didn't have too much. I grew up in a very low middle class family. I didn't have a bicycle, I think maybe until I was 14. I didn't own a bicycle. We didn't have television until I think I was maybe thirteen. And so a lot of my time was just spent outdoors. You know, I would go and stalk birds around their nests and watch when they'd come in and feed their chicks and stuff like that. I'd bring home squirrel babies that had fallen out and look after them and little fledglings that needed to be looked after and stuff like that. Hide puppies in the basement and the garden. Hope my mother wouldn't find out. I did all of that stuff.

 

But what really changed everything was the fact that I was just fascinated by the jungle. And as I grew older, I was just absolutely taken in by the forest. We call it a jungle here. The woods, so to say. And I would bike with one or two of my buddies and we'd bike about 30 kilometres to a forest not too far from my house and we'd park the bicycles and then walk about 12 kilometres through the forest. So that was absolutely breath-taking. You know, we'd go into the woods and then walk beside a small rivulet, we'd see wild elephants, leopard pugmarks, sloth bear pugmarks. And my fascination was with these animals and their signs. So we'd see like a piece of leaf on the ground and I'd be curious to see who, why was that leaf on the ground? Was it that a langur had bitten it? Was it a squirrel that had dislodged it? Why was it right there? And we'd look at the bite marks around the leaf or the fruit, things like that. Look at jackal scat. It's a cool word for faeces, but basically look at scat and open it up with a little twig and see what was in that scat? You know, I'd call it scat analysis, but we'd kind of get in there and see had it eaten a rodent or was it a hare? What kind of plants and leaves and stuff was in there. So that was so exciting.

 

But finally, we'd walk through the forest and then get to this water hole at the base of a big hill. And by this time it would usually be about half past five. It will be getting to evening. And then we'd find a nice big tree around the waterhole and shimmy up the tree about 30, 40 feet up in the tree and settle ourselves on branches. Usually it would be me and one other friend. Sometimes on rare occasions there might be three of us. And sometimes on some occasions it was just me. And then we'd kind of settle in and use a belt to kind of secure ourselves so we didn't fall off. And then that's when the magic all started, you know, the forest sounds would change along with the times as the light, as it got dusk. The bird calls would change to the jungle fowl and then it would become the Nightjar calls and then this eerie silence kind of overtook everything else and as darkness fell it slowly changed over to the crickets and then the frogs would start calling. It was just magical. And then of course it was pitch dark and we would settle at full moon nights to do this. So two days before the full moon, the full moon night itself and the two nights after that, and then the moon kind of rose from behind the hill right on top.

 

And until then it would be completely pitch dark and you would hear scrabbling of leaves in the undergrowth. You wouldn't know what's going on but you just listen to the sounds. And that's when you might hear elephants trumpeting, sloth bears, kind of scrabbling around looking for dung beetle balls and stuff like that. Leopards calling out to each other. And then the moon comes out and bathes everything in this beautiful, silvery moonlight. You look down and you see this herd of elephants playing in the water. Wild elephants, all kinds of animals, wild boar, mongoose, cool sloth bears, leopards, and jackals. It was just absolutely magical. And I still remember like it was yesterday. There was this one female elephant, this matriarch, who walked right under us and I had my feet hanging down from a branch and she was maybe 10 feet, about 15 feet below. Her head was probably about 15 feet below me. So, she still couldn't have yanked me down or maybe she could have.

 

I was quite silly growing up. We took a lot of stupid risks and I think I'm very lucky to be alive, but it also taught me how generous and tolerant nature is. The fact that I'm alive I think it's kind of testament to the fact that I put myself in a lot of stupid situations, but I've never, ever been harmed by any wild animals ever. I've been in ridiculous situations with wild elephants, with tigers, with leopards, with sloth bears. I've been charged in the wild by tigers, by sloth bears and by elephants. But here I am living to tell the tale. And that particular night, this herd of elephants was coming into that area with the waterhole and I stopped breathing because the mother was right below me and she put her trunk up and she kind of smelled around. They try to pick up scent from the wind. So you've got to make sure you're downwind from them and not upwind from them. And I was hoping that she wouldn't pick up anything. She kind of went ahead and then all these little baby elephants came, this calf came and joined her and then the rest of the herd came in as well to the waterhole. They were frolicking around playing in the water. And then after some time she suddenly gave a little trumpeting sound. Everybody in the herd stopped moving and she had her trunk up and she smelled - the wind changed - and she smelled us. She gave one trumpet and the entire herd was out of there in the other direction and they disappeared.

 

So, it was really magical, but I learned a lot hiking through the jungles and doing this kind of stuff and my dream that day, that night, what I saw that night, taught me that nature has so much beauty that we were completely ignorant about. And I was barely 40 minutes from the centre of town in Bangalore but nobody knew of this beautiful place. The beauty of nature and what she holds within her folds so to say. And that's when I decided that, okay, if I was going to use this lifetime well, I was going to use it to protect nature and make sure I give back something because everything that human beings do is consume, take, borrow. All we do is take from nature and everything that I'm wearing, everything we're using, the houses we have, the desks we have, the clothes we wear. It's all taken from nature. We modify it from the shape that it is and make something out of it. And then we consume it. What do we ever give back? Do we ever leave anything back? So if you look at, you know, that's one of the philosophies that I follow that we've got to be more than a rodent in a sewer. Consume, reproduce and die. That's all that people do. And we've got to be more than that. We've got to be something that returns something back. Mother nature is so generous to us and we don't even pause to think about how much is given and don't we owe her something back? And the least we can give her is to not meddle with her so much and leave her creatures be. So that's kind of how I got started.

 

And I was terrified of chemistry. I guess I had a bad chemistry teacher. And so I ended up not doing chemistry at all, but I wanted to be a veterinarian. You know, that was my dream. But I couldn't because in order to be a veterinarian you have to have chemistry. So I said what the hell I've still got to do this. I'm still going to live my dream and do what I can to help animals. So, I started working as a field biologist for the New York zoological society, a project in India. A tiger ecological status survey. And I still remember the interview when I went there for the interview, I was doing business management and not science because that was the easiest course that gave me a lot of time to go to the jungle. And I was studying all the books on science and animal ecology and forest resources and stuff like that. But business management gave me, not just time, but it also gave me a good level of knowledge on how to manage economics. And I think it's economics that makes the world go round and whether it's depletion of wildlife resources or helping communities to stay away from exploiting wildlife. At the end of the day, it's all about economics. And I'm so glad that it worked out that way.

 

I saw this advertisement in the newspaper for field biologists for a tiger ecological status survey project. And I applied and of course my parents had no clue that I was applying for this. When I got the call saying, well, would you like to come for an interview? I went down and they asked me a bunch of questions and seeing that I was still in the first year of my graduation, they were like, you still haven't even finished college. How can you come and do a job? I said, well, I'm interested. I am really keen. So they said, well, you're here so we might as well just interview you and then we'll see how it goes. And when they did the interview, they asked me a bunch of questions and I was able to answer everything related to wildlife. And then they finally asked me, what's your dream? I mean, what do you eventually want to do? So I said, well, I want to set up rescue centres for wild animals and put those animals back in the forest where they belong and fix them. And so they looked at me like I was crazy. And they said, well, other than this strange idea that you had, do you have anything else? This is a crazy, crazy scheme that you have in your head, but do you have anything else to say? I said, no, that's all I want to do. And they said, fine.

 

And then of course there was another field test and then I got selected. Then I had to break the news to my parents that, here I was, just beginning my graduation and I had a job, in the jungle. So that was another story altogether. I managed to convince my parents, I managed to convince my university's vice chancellor to let me study in the jungle for two years. And I would come back eight weeks before my exams and I would burn the midnight oil while studying in the jungle. There wasn't electricity in the forest where we worked. And so I was a wildlife biologist for the tiger ecological status survey project for two years, two and a half years. And then I would come back and finish my business management course as well. So yeah, it all worked out. And that's when I realised that there was a need to do more than just research, more than just science. There was a need to do serious real time conservation on the ground, helping people understand what nature was, and how to protect her, her forest and creatures.

 

And in order to provide solutions, you also had to be a solution yourself. You had to find real practical solutions and not some flow charts and fancy numbers and fancy presentations. It had to be ground-based in real time. And what really made me change that as well was the fact that on one of my field days, I found a bunch of people in the forest. They were cutting trees. It was the timber mafia. And I somehow managed to kind of ambush them with one of the assistants. We caught a couple of them, took them back to the forest, and then I was told off because I wasn't doing my data gathering that I was supposed to do. It helped me decide that I really was not made for just crunching numbers and gathering data in the field, but I had to do something more serious, more hands on. Yeah, that's when I decided that I needed to think about what I was doing and really get involved in doing something more realistic on the ground, hands-on to help both people and animals.

 

And that's when my co-founder and colleague, you know who later on became my cofounder, Geeta Seshamani. She is distantly related to me through the family. So she was the only other person that I knew who was involved in caring for animals. She ran another organisation called Friendicoes in Delhi. So she called me and she said, well if you're not so keen, because I had already told her that I was very frustrated with the way things were going and I wanted to do some real hands-on work. And she said, well, I'm thinking of doing something about these bears. Would you like to help me? I said yes absolutely, in a heartbeat I'll be there to assist helping these bears. And sloth bears are really cool animals. I've always been very fascinated by that species. So that's kind of how I came to Delhi, started working with Geeta and that's when I said this is a real situation. Well, it's an SOS situation for wildlife across India and we've got to do something about it. So, the only way you could do any work was either through being employed by someone or you create an organisation that you can make a difference with.

 

That's when we decided to create this institution and it was just the two of us. We started it in 1995 but it needed about, I think something like £800, or £900 to register the charity and we didn't have the money. So it took us three years to raise that money to register the charity. That's why our registration date is 1998. That's how Wildlife SOS was created. We created the organisation to try and make a difference to wildlife in distress as well as provide solutions to people who didn't know how to deal with complex situations where human animal interface was involved. And you know, we started off as just the two of us and today we employ nearly 400 people across India helping make a difference.

 

James:

We recorded this podcast in two parts. We join Kartick again in his description of the setup of Wildlife SOS.

 

Kartick:

SOS wildlife was started in 1995 by me and my co-founder, Geeta Seshamani. And while we really started work almost right away to help people and animals, it took us over nearly three years to raise the resources required to register it as a charity because that was the only way we could do this kind of philanthropic work in India and social support for protection of wildlife habitat forests and working with indigenous communities. Our focus at the time when we started was one big goal and it was to bring an end if it was possible to this barbaric practice called dancing bears. And our research for the last two and a half years since we started in 1995 to 1997 had already shown us how, for hundreds of years, this endangered species of bear, the sloth bear, which is only found in India. And we have a sub-species in Sri Lanka, had been exploited for centuries by this community to earn a livelihood for themselves. And so as we went and Geeta and I visited each village, each community, and met them to try and understand why they depended so much on these bears. How did these bears end up in these villages?

 

And as we worked with them closely, they started slowly gaining trust. Initially. I still remember there will be villages we would land up in and as we'd enter the village, they'd chase us out of the village with axes and spears and swords and they'd come chasing after us saying, why are you here? Get out of here. We don't need you trying to take away our livelihoods. And we'd be like, Oh my goodness, we'd run back, dive into the Jeep and drive off. And you know, eventually several months later we'd find another head man of a different village. In that community they are all related so they would be able to vouch for us. And we'd come back to that same village with him, tentatively, not knowing if we would have a similar welcome like the last time with axes galore. But, usually we'd be able to win them over and the man would vouch for us and say, I am standing guarantee here for these people. I know that these people only want to help us. So let's take their help. Let's listen to at least what they have to say.

 

And he'd calm them down. And we'd sit them down in a community area, usually around a tree or something and we'd sit there and explain to them. Listen guys, the wildlife protection act in 1972 outlawed this practice. You still are getting bear cubs out of the forest. Mother bears are getting killed because of this practice. Although you tell the forest officers and other people that bears are just being bred in captivity in your backyards. We know that's not true. You know, that's not true. And sooner or later the government will find out and this is a non-bailable offence. If you go to jail, what happens to your children? Who's going to look after your family? Please have a thought for those things as well. And then there'd be some people from the community who'd get up. People who we've already worked with and gained trust, and they'd say, well why don't we give their suggestion consideration? All they're saying is only how we can improve ourselves. And we would then tell them that if you worked with us instead of fighting us, all we want to do is get you guys support.

 

What is your dream? And they'd say, we want electricity, we want drinking water. And we would find out at that point of time that that community, every village in the Kalandar community, most of them did not have any electricity. They had no running water. There was one hand pump that the women would have to walk sometimes up to five kilometres to get one pot of water and cook it at home. So it was a huge hardship for the entire community. The children did not have any access to education and the girls would be married off the minute they were 10, 11 and 12 and it was not a good sign at all for the community. It was a very patriarchal community. The women didn't have a voice. So we started talking to them about how we could train your women to become second income earners. It would become a relief for the family if you had more resources. Your quality of life would change. Your children would...what is your dream? We would ask them that and they would say, well, I dreamed that my child doesn't have to beg on the streets like I do with my bear. I want them to be an engineer or a doctor or have a shop. And what is your dream? And we would ask them that and they were all street smart. That's something that we would really give to them. You know, because of the number of arduous years they had spent begging on the streets surviving, using the gift of the gab. Showing, I mean you only had a bear to dance on the streets and you had to stop tourists driving to these international monuments like the Taj Mahal and you had to earn money. This is what they did for a living.

 

And so they had the gift of the gab. They knew how to survive. And they had this streak of entrepreneurship inside them and we wanted to capitalise on that. So we said, what is it that you would do if you didn't have a bear? What would you like to do? And they would come up with ingenious suggestions like I would have a shop with groceries and I would make sure, because my settlement, my village doesn't have one single grocery store and people have to walk three kilometres or four kilometres to get even a small bag of rice or even a packet of biscuits. And I would set that up and we would ask each of them and they would all come up with very clever ideas. Some of them were a little bit overly ambitious and we would have to kind of counsel them into being more realistic and finding them a solution of an alternative livelihood that would match their skills more. Like some of them would say, well I want to own three trucks. We'd be like, okay, do you have a licence? No. Have you ever driven a truck before? No. Well, we'd say, maybe we start a little bit smaller. How about an auto rickshaw or a tuk-tuk? Do you know how to do that? No, but I've seen it and so, okay, fine, let's enrol you for a driving class.

 

So, we had to break it down and hand hold every single man, woman and child to make sure we could help this community. And of course the men were very, very hard for us to convince. We found the women were super intelligent. They were clued on immediately from the get go. And when we started off by saying, we want your children to have education, they were on board right away. And because they could see farther ahead and some of the men were only thinking of how the kids could be utilised for working as labour to bring them money on a day to day basis. And the women were thinking further ahead about how the children needed to have a better quality of life than they themselves had had. So that was a good way for us to start. And as we empowered the women, we taught them carpet weaving, embroidery, tailoring, stitching, candle making, incense stick making, things like that, they started getting empowered and as they became second income earners for the family and supporting the family, then through them we were able to get them to start sending their children to school.

 

And I think they've sent over 7,600 children to school from these communities. Every child that goes to school of course gets support in terms of books, the school fees, et cetera. And we did not find separate schools for them. We got them enrolled in schools around the communities. There were two reasons for that. One was that they were a very conservative community. They did not want the girls moving far away. They were very, very worried about that, and the second reason was that we wanted them, the children to sit next to children of other communities and other religions and other castes and get used to living with people in mainstream society. It would prepare them for the outside world. And for that reason we found just normal schools which were around there and just paid the fees into those schools wherever possible. And that really became a huge thing because today when I look back, it makes me so proud to see that youngsters who we started teaching a long time ago, sending them to school from the Kalandar community. Remember these were nomadic gypsies.

 

Today, some of those kids who would have otherwise been dancing bears on the streets are now following bachelor's courses in college and going into medicine school and things like that. And it makes me very proud to look back and see that. And when we started out, we were quite concerned if this would even work. A lot of people they'd tell us that this could take 50 years to solve. It's a 400 year old practice. How do you expect to resolve a 400 year old practice that involves livelihoods? It involves a conservative community that is also a minority. And it involves a law. I mean, these are three things that is a perfect ingredient for a major controversy. How do you expect to solve it? And we said, well, we'll try our best. The worst thing that can happen is that we fail. That's the worst that can happen. That's the worst that can happen. So we said we'll go ahead and see if we fall to the ground, then that's too bad. We'll get up, dust ourselves and go on again and keep trying. And if it means that this entire lifetime is utilised in just solving this one problem, it would still be worth it because it's one big problem that the world doesn't have to deal with anymore. And so that was the attitude that we had moving forward.

 

And when we started off, we thought this could take us 5 decades perhaps, but we ended up solving this problem in about 17 years. It was a long time for us and we needed a lot of perseverance, persistence. And it was a painful uphill climb all the way through, but it's really worth it because with effort that we invested, we were able to rehabilitate 3,000 families. And to this day, I truly cannot fathom how we were able to raise those kinds of financial resources to help every single family. Because I remember we were giving every family that surrendered their bear willingly...signed an agreement with us and wanted to start off a new alternative livelihood. We helped them with seed funds for the new business and every family got 50,000 rupees from us. And back in the day this was perhaps between £800 and £1,000. And to raise that volume of money to this day without a business plan, without any financial acumen, to be honest, I think the universe really came to our rescue, and when you just do something with a true and sincere interest in trying to help nature and people, and I think you can find solutions.

 

James:

So, I suppose the question now is what now happens with the bears? Have the sloth bear communities grown again in the forests? Are you taking care of those bears as well? What's sort of been the impact?

 

 

 

Kartick:

So the result of working with the Kalandar community and the dancing bears was that we ended up having the community, and we encouraged them to voluntarily surrender bears to the forest department. And we signed agreements with them because we also had to ensure that they would not surrender a bear to us, collect the seed funds then go back to violating the law and getting another bear. So to ensure that we of course microchipped every single bear, got a very tight agreement signed up and the agreement was strong and we also monitored the community so that the man who went away with 50,000 rupees to set up a shop, actually rented the shop, got the stocks, started selling. We would guide him on a day to day basis saying, well what were your sales today? How did you do? And he says, Oh I bought onions and it didn't do too well, and my bananas all got rotten. And so we would have to kind of guide him on the ropes of these things. Well, don't buy fruits. Maybe you should focus on vegetables that have a slightly longer shelf life and things like that.

 

So, we had a team on the ground working with them and as that got stronger, we ended up getting more and more communities surrendering the bears. So we rescued 628 bears and you can imagine that's a handful of bears to have. And so we had to establish these rescue centres to house these bears. And as each bear came in, it was quite a challenge to deal with because every single animal that would come in would be quite traumatic to even watch because they would come in with an inflamed muzzle, there'd be puss dripping out of that hole in the muzzle. The feet would have been shattered. There would be this rope going through over the eye and then into the muzzle over the delicate cartilage and out at the other end. And we would of course have this extreme challenge of anesthetising the bear, putting it on the hospital table, and then removing that rope or the ring that would be embedded inside. And it was quite hard to forgive these people, but we had to because I think they didn't know any better.

 

So it was quite challenging. It was an experience that taught us that, okay, we've got to learn to forgive, but we've also got to learn to ensure that we give these people a sustainable solution so they never have to go back to doing this ever again. And so as we anesthetised the bear, we had to do three or four root canal surgeries on every single bear. In fact we had a wonderful team of dentists and veterinary dentists and human dentists that came down from the UK. They'd actually come down and train our vets on how to do dental surgeries and root canal surgeries on bears. And we had to make special bits that were really like three inches long because human drills don't work with big bears and they have deep three inch long teeth and three to four inch long roots as well. So quite a bit of work over there. But it taught us what these bears went through. And in a way it also showed us what a high level of tolerances bears had for pain and suffering. And they were so forgiving.

 

So in a way it also encouraged us and I personally took a lesson, and the bear to me is my spirit animal because they surely have been treated so badly, but they still don't attack people. I mean, there are a few attacks in the wild that you do hear about, but I think it could have been far worse. So it taught us that you've got to deal with life very differently. And I think the Covid pandemic that we're all facing now is also like a wake up call. In a way, it shows people that you've got to treat nature and her creatures with a little more respect. Anyway, going back to that dancing bear situation, I'm sorry, I'm all over the place. Feel free to get me back if I digress.

 

Michelle:

It's so interesting I could listen to you all day to be fair.

 

 

Kartick:

And going back to the bears. So, we started rescuing these bears and we realised that having one rescue centre is not going to help us deal with it. So we ended up starting four different rescue centres across India. So one was in eastern India, central India, northern India and southern India. These were the four places where we had concentrations of dancing bears and we thought rather than having to truck bears all over the country, I mean at the end of the day, India is a big country. And so we decided it was more logical economically as well as logistically to have different centres so we could pull those bears to those nearby centres. And it worked. And we ended up recruiting 40% of our staff from these communities. So of course they couldn't start working with bears right away because their attitude to animals from the beginning required some tweaking and modification. So we needed to retrain them. And so what we started off was by recruiting the youngsters in the community, giving them jobs in the kitchen, field maintenance, grounds cleaning, growing trees and looking after our nurseries and things like that. And then eventually, once we had seen that, okay, these people have understood that the way they treated their animals was not right. And this is not the way to do it.

 

Slowly they started as they got retrained. So we had to help them unlearn their previous training and their attitude towards animals and teach them new ways of respecting these animals and treating them humanely. And once they reached that point, then they could work as assistants to some of our bear keepers and then eventually become bear keepers themselves. So there was a trajectory of growth as they learned. And they evolved in their own understanding of how to treat these animals. So from that point onwards there was no looking back. We wished to help these bears and now we had bears coming out of our ears and we had to help them. And to be honest, there were days that I would be quite fearful and I would worry about how were we going to find the kind of financial resources this required? I mean, we had hundreds of bears in our care. We had over 300 members of staff. How were we going to look after them? This is not a company, it's a non-profit charitable organisation and how are we going to go forward? But I must say that help has kind of come out of the blue. When we didn't know what was going to even come in our way. And the universe has always come to our rescue and helped us in some way or the other. What was your last question? Sorry, forgive me if I digress too much.

 

James:

The changes in the sloth bear community. If there are bears in the wild, have perhaps the number of bears in the wild grown?

 

Kartick:

I should address that. So, before I go off into another tangent altogether. So the work that we did with the Kalandar community, one component was to ensure that they did not use dancing bears anymore. But that also meant that it also cut off the demand for baby bears to be poached from the forest. And that was one of our key goals at the time to start with. The reason we started this project was to stop the poaching of bear cubs from the wild. That was our end game. But to get there, we had to travel this huge arc of working with the community, improving the social status, giving them alternative livelihoods, empowering the women, educating the children. So there would be no more demand for sloth bears from the wild. That would have a direct impact on the poaching of sloth bears. And in return we would have the wild sloth bear population safe from such exploitation and such poaching. So yes, we had to monitor every single community using our anti-poaching units.

 

So, we set up a small anti-poaching unit and we call it Forest Watch and it's basically a motley crew of reformed poachers and other people who work with us. And we have 24 informers on our team and they basically go undercover, infiltrate these communities, hang around there, smoke joints with them, hang around and pretend to be involved in the drug industry or selling contraband and stuff. But they gather valuable intelligence for us and they let us know and alert us to the presence of any cubs or if somebody is considering poaching bear cubs or the presence of bear cubs in any one place. And so that was a time when we started off where people would guarantee us that, okay, I'm not going to go and buy any more bears. I'm not going to create demand for bear cubs. I am willing to take on an alternative livelihood. That's the agreement that they sign when they surrender the bear to us. In return, we expect them to follow that promise that they've given us. And that involves not creating a demand for more bear cubs. And so our anti-poaching unit would monitor each village and there were several instances when we heard of poachers coming there, offering bear cubs for sale in gunny bags and things like that. And we would immediately alert the police, send our crack team down there to work with the police and the forest department and intercept those people.

 

We've rescued over 60 bear cubs from across India during that time. It wasn't that all of them who promised us would go back on their word, even a couple of instances when some of them were tempted, but just the fact that we monitored those villages helped us and we had to do this across India. And we were also cracking down on poaching gangs that were doing the syndicates, little syndicates that had been doing this for 40, 50 years selling bear cubs. So yes, I can happily say the fact that Wildlife SOS got involved in working with the community, giving them alternative livelihoods, setting them up with a better social status so they did not need to depend on using sloth bears as a way of livelihood. As well as Wildlife SOS's insistence that they not demand more cubs from the forest. I think that directly stemmed the poaching of bear cubs and protected our wild population of sloth bears in India's forests.

 

James:

You mentioned as well that you saw an elephant begging on the side of the road. Did that plant a seed for you? To say the sloth bear scenario seems to be going well, I've got this new idea about elephants. Is that when that came about?

 

Kartick:

Exactly. Indeed that's exactly how it came about. So as we were driving, Geeta and I used to drive every week, several times a week to rescue these bears and have them settled in, finish the paperwork with the Kalandar community. We'd drive back and forth between Delhi and Agra all the time. And at that time we saw Champa and this was an elephant that was begging on the side of the street and she had a huge limp. She'd be taking tourists on her back. And it was pretty painful to watch because it was 120 degrees outside. I mean 47-48 degrees in the sun and the tar melts on the road when you see that and it all sticks to your tires so you can imagine what it was doing to her feet. And we saw that and we said to ourselves, you know, we've got to help this poor elephant. And we started sending a veterinary team once a week to just go take a look at her and stuff.

 

And then as the whole bear programme continued to grow, we realised that we have started solving this much quicker than we thought. We thought it would take us 50 years, but we've kind of solved it in less than 20 years and we still have some time. Let's try and address this. And maybe the elephants is something that we can help with. So that's when we decided, okay let's, and you know, I must confess, I'm not sure if I said this earlier. We did get infected by a disease called not knowing how to say no to an animal in distress. It's a very, very infectious disease and doesn't let go of you. Worse than the Corona thing, I'm afraid. So we said, okay, let's rescue her. And so we started talking to the owner who was only too glad to get rid of her because he knew she was...she was with us for a very short while. Once we rescued her, she already had cancer and we learned that much later. But at the time...Can you hear the parrots squawking away?

 

James:

Yes. It's exotic.

 

Michelle:

It adds to the ambiance.

 

James:

It makes it makes it real.

 

Michelle:

You're not in Clapham or Withernsea!

 

Kartick:

All right. So, we decided to rescue this elephant Champa and we spoke to the forest department and got all the logistics ready. And to be honest, when we rescued her, we finally had her released. All the paperwork was done. We were ready to move her, but we did not have any place to take her to. We did not have an elephant rescue centre. We couldn't take her to the bear centre. We weren't really sure where we would take her. So as she was walking, we had to only walk her because she wouldn't get on to a truck. As she was walking towards the rescue centre area where we had the bears, we were all scrambling to find a place for her to be housed. And so we had till night fall before we could find a place. So we scrambled. And so for the first few nights we had a different place for her in each night. One, I think, I don't know, one night she was in a school, the second night she was behind another training college. And then the third night she was in another, a forest officers complex.

 

And then after that we realised that we had to look at a more permanent solution. One of our drivers came running to us saying, you know, my family has a lot of land. Maybe you could just, you know, we could let you just keep the elephant there. So we said, okay, we welcomed any suggestion like that where land was available. So that's how we ended up finding a place for Champa and having her. But sadly, she had cancer. We realised much later that the owner had been feeding her tobacco every day to help her deal with the pain in the foot because she had a huge abscess over there. And eventually she passed away. But she taught us so much. She taught us what elephants go through. She taught us the amount of pain and endurance that these elephants have to deal with and what kind of pain and suffering they have to endure on a daily basis. And that did wake us up to the fact that we've got to do something for these elephants.

 

And she inspired us to establish India's first hospital and rescue centre. So the elephant conservation and care centre that we have now in Mathura, which is about two hours from Delhi, is really something that she inspired us to start. And before we knew it, we were rescuing elephants, two, three elephants every year. We've rescued over 30 elephants in the last 10 years. And when I look back, I'm really proud to see that we started this 10 years ago, last year we were able to establish India's first elephant hospital and you probably have seen it on the press, otherwise you can see it on our website, www.wildlifesos.org. The elephant hospital that we have not just works as a treatment facility for elephants in distress, but it also works as a training facility to train veterinarians, elephant keepers, elephant mahouts, managers and how to train and manage elephants humanely. It's a great facility for us to have, which helps both academically as well as in terms of a field situation. So it has an observation deck within the treatment area that we can have vets and veterinary students and other people who are interested in the care of elephants actually sit, stand or sit and watch procedures as we do them.

We have a crane inside the elephant hospital where we can lift elephants up. We have a water bed that we can have them lie on if they want to. And basically it has the facilities where we can do digital radiographs, wireless X rays, ultrasounds, laser therapy, all the rest of it. It's truly a dream that's come true. And now our next step is to expand that and we've just managed to establish an extension of that facility and we call it the field of dreams where the elephants can swim across the river. And they basically have a lot of place. I think enclosures that we have for elephants are probably the biggest enclosures in the country. And elephants, each of them get a large enclosure, a pool that they can be in. They can basically do what they want. And it's the second, next thing that we can offer them, to being in the wild in their natural habitat. Because a lot of these elephants can't be put back in the wild because they will just not be able to survive on their own as they're old, they're lame, they have a lot of medical issues, they've been exploited in a really harsh manner, brutally. And that's what we have at the moment. We'd love for you guys to come at some point of time once this Covid situation is over so you can come and see these elephants and walk on the field of dreams.

 

Michelle:

That'd be amazing.

 

James:

It would.

 

Kartick:

We could do a podcast there, listen to all the elephant sounds.

 

Michelle:

That would be lush!

 

James:

We'll get that sorted.

 

Michelle:

When we're allowed to leave the house!

 

Kartick:

Yes.

 

Michelle:

It's amazing how much our freedom to travel, how much we took that for granted almost.

 

Kartick:

Absolutely. Yeah. I think we took a lot for granted. In fact, I was just doing an interview for a newspaper telling them how we've taken nature for granted. We've really abused her. We've exploited her unsustainably and she's given us a little bit of a shake to show us who's boss and it's time for people to realise that we've got to treat her with more respect and her creatures. So one of the things, going back to the elephant thing, one of the things that we realised was that people don't understand elephants. They think, Oh it's cool, you know, we can just ride on an elephant's back. But they don't realise what an elephant has to be subjected to in order for it to be trained to have people on its back. It's a wild animal that lives in the jungles of India. No wild animal is going to let you sit on its back and give you a ride.

 

So, the training that an elephant goes through is basically a baby elephant is struck from the forest, separated from its mother, plucked away from its herd at a very young age and then brutalised for months and months through training. It's starved. That is how an elephant is trained and in fact to empower people so they can be responsible tourists when they travel and not go on elephant rides. We've actually created a website called Refuse To Ride and the website is www.refusetoride.org and this is primarily a resource website where people can actually go on and understand what actually happens to elephants. And so when people are empowered and they have knowledge of where this elephant has been trained or how it's been trained, they can then make a conscious decision if it's really worth them having a few minutes of fun. Because of that the elephant is going to have a lifetime of misery. You know, is it really worth it? They can take a call for themselves.

 

So it would be great if we could get people to get on this website and we also have a petition on the website. So we encourage people to sign the petition because it'll then give us something to encourage the government of India to also consider when everything goes back to normal so that elephants are treated better. Most of the elephants that are used for riding, for processions in India are lame, blind, or sick in some way, but yet that is concealed. And the uninformed tourists very often become victims of that and they end up becoming a whole part of this exploitation industry. So that's something that we are also working on and Wildlife SOS on a regular basis conducts workshops and training courses for elephant keepers, carers and mahouts all across India. And we encourage them to see how positive conditioning can work as well as negative conditioning can. And the traditional method of negative conditioning that they use is by using a bull hook, beating the elephant, forcing it to do things that it doesn't want to do. Whereas you can get the same exact behaviour of getting the elephant to do what you want it to do by just rewarding the elephant for that action.

 

And so we can get our elephants to give us their feet for trimming or allow us to pull blood from the ear or trim its tusk or whatever by just rewarding the elephant. It's called positive operant conditioning or positive conditioning. And it really works and we have videos of it and it's amazing. And in fact we've got some of our elephants so well trained because all we do is we offer them a peanut or a piece of date. You know, when they give us the behaviour that we ask for and the only training that we do is so we can manage them in terms of veterinary management. So if a vet needs to look at her feet or she's got an injury or we need to send her blood for a blood work test or something. She's not a puppy that we can just pick her up and put her on a table and draw blood. It's an elephant! They weigh maybe five tonnes! So, the elephant has to decide to cooperate with us.

 

And that's how we manage. I'll send you some photos and some videos as well so you guys can see it. And actually one of ours, we call her a munchkin because she's very cute and very munchy and cuddly. But she is so food orientated and food motivated that she trains really quickly. So we say, okay, Laxmi, can we have your left foot? Hear you go it's all yours. As long as you keep those peanuts coming. Give her a peanut and then we stop. She'd be like, okay, how about my left foot? How about my right foot? How about my trunk? And she's like desperate to please us. We'd be like, no, we've seen all these ones. You don't need to do your feet again. No, no please. And she keeps putting out her feet. It's hilarious.

 

Michelle:

It's how you'd train me as well I suppose. Just keep giving me food. I'm fine. Brilliant. Can't wait to see the photos and the videos.

 

 

 

James:

And I've been chatting with Debbie and Shirina so we'll be sharing a lot of really good content and the websites and the videos and photos all week.

 

Kartick:

That's nice.

 

James:

That's great.

 

Kartick:

Excellent.

 

Michelle:

So, would you say that you were living your dream I suppose at the moment?

 

Kartick:

Absolutely. Right from day one. I think all I've ever wanted to do was to work with animals, work in the forest, and help conserve nature. And that's all I've done. So to be honest, I have done everything I've ever wanted. I think I feel really lucky that in this lifetime I've been given an opportunity to do exactly what I wanted. I've lived my dream. I've realised every single one of my dreams. You know, I wanted to set up a rehabilitation facilities. Yes. I truly have been able to realise every one of my dreams. I wanted to help leopards, tigers, bears, elephants, crocodiles, snakes. And I've done every single one of those. And you know, the organisation that Geeta and I started, I mean in today's day and age, it would have cost us a hundred pounds to register the charity...it took us three years to raise that money to get the charity started off and on its feet. And today the organisation we have thousands of animals and birds and reptiles in our care. We have over 350 staff. We run projects across India. So I think it's certainly a success, but it does come as a result of the disease of not knowing how to say no to an animal in distress.

 

So, yes, but it does make us very dependent on donations and everything that we do is severely, starkly dependent on the generosity of people who support this kind of work. And I must say I'm very, very grateful to every supporter of Wildlife SOS who I think they are conscious that they in their daily lives, whether they are working at a company or at a factory or doing whatever business, they can't get out and do this. So in a way they realise their dream of helping animals through Wildlife SOS. So, we are a conduit in a way for them to realise their dreams. So they become a part of the solution with us and we are able to be the hand so to say in the field to make this happen on the ground. And you know, without their help, without the help of donations and without people being supportive with donations, we would not be able to continue to do this kind of work on the ground. And for that, I'm very, very grateful.

 

This Covid situation puts me personally in a very worrisome situation and I'm quite concerned. I have had sleepless nights and I would be lying if I didn't say I was very concerned because I think people around the world have had an impact on their finances and it's going to impact the economy whether we like it or not. And if that has a direct impact on us, which I'm guessing it is likely to, it will be difficult for us to continue to provide care for animals, administer medicines and food and stuff like that and keep our staff going. So it does worry me and I've been reaching out to several of our supporters and donors and asking them for help to keep us afloat and keep us going. And I hope at this difficult time that people will continue to stand by us and not let us down and continue to give us support. I mean if people who heard this, who've been listening to this and are touched by the story of Wildlife SOS and how we go the extra mile to help animals in distress and if they want to be a part of this and help us, they can make a contribution to Wildlife SOS by going to www.wildlifesos.org and donating. And we are also registered as a charity in the UK, so Gift Aid is applicable and it'll go a long way to help us to make a difference to this planet and to nature's creatures.

 

Michelle:

It's been such a lovely, lovely chat and hopefully we can raise some more awareness as well. So happy to be involved in trying to help.

 

James:

Definitely.

 

Kartick:

Very grateful. Thank you so much for your patience and your perseverance and for tolerating me.

 

Michelle:

We've got one last question before we let you go. So we ask all of our podcast guests this one. So if you could go back in time and speak to your 18 year old self, what advice would you give to him?

 

Kartick:

If I could go back in time and speak to my 18-year-old self, I would advise him not to be scared of chemistry, mathematics, and I would probably not do very much more different things. To be honest, I have very little that I regret. The only thing that I do regret is being so fearful of chemistry. But I wish I wasn't so frightened of chemistry and yes, I think everything else, to be honest, I lived on ridiculously small amounts of money. I sold my motorcycle to buy a camera. I did all kinds of crazy things in my life, but I do not regret any of those decisions. I think I did all of those things the right way. Maybe I would also advise my 18 year old self to be more patient. But you know, it's hard for 18 year olds to be, I was a hugely impatient person. I was terrified at the thought of every day going by and not having achieved something. So I was really, really worried. I was like, Oh my God, I'm going to be 20 in a few months and I haven't done this and I haven't done that. And that went on every year of my life.

 

Michelle:

I'm sitting next to one at the moment. He is very similar. Always has to achieve something. It's like, could you not just achieve some relaxation?

 

James:

It's true!

 

Kartick:

I would also go back and advise my 18 year old self to do better, get better at swimming and skateboarding. And I was very impatient as a music student. I learned four different instruments, but in four weeks, if I didn't learn enough I would give up on it. So that is one thing I'm really mad at myself for. Otherwise I would have been great at violin, veena, guitar and drums. Imagine, I tried all four and I gave up all four because I would ask my teacher, why can't I play like you? And he'd be like, it took me 18 years my boy it will take you a long time. I'm like, what?

 

Michelle:

I want to download it now and know it.

 

Kartick:

So yes, I would give those pieces of advice. I would knock some sense into my 18 year old self and say, well, have more patience, learn those things, stick in there, you know?

 

Michelle:

Yes, that makes sense.

 

James:

Well, thank you so much Kartick. We've really enjoyed hearing your stories and all the great work that you are doing in the world. So we're going to share lots of content, as we said, obviously www.wildlifesos.org you've mentioned the website and we hope we can bring some good awareness to the great work that you're doing. So thank you very much for your time.

 

Kartick:

It's been a pleasure speaking with both of you. Thank you very much for your time.

 

Michelle:

Thank you.

 

Kartick:

Thank you. Bye. Bye.