• Ayan Mehra

Elephants In Captivity - The Story of Rhea

Before Christmas, I had asked all the supporters of @ayansartforconseravtion to help me adopt a rescued circus elephant Rhea. I am delighted to share, that thanks to your wonderful support and generosity in buying Christmas gift tags, postcards & original art from my store, we have been able to adopt Rhea for 1 year!

Rhea at the Elephant Care & Conservation Centre, © Wildlife SOS

Rhea is a rescued circus elephant at Wildlife SOS, an Indian NGO that specializes in rescuing abused captive animals. On adopting Rhea, I interviewed Geeta Seshamani (Founder at Wildlife SOS) to learn more about Rhea and the whole elephant rescue program.

Geeta Seshamani (Founder Wildlife SOS) with Rhea (R) & Mia (L), © Wildlife SOS


(1) Ayan: Which circus did Rhea come from? What was the story and circumstances of her rescue?

Geeta Seshamani : Rhea was rescued from a circus in Tamil Nadu. She was most likely poached from the wild as a calf, separated from her family and herd, and made to go through the brutal process of phajaan to make her tame. Rhea had two other elephants with her at the circus who became her companions - Mia and Sita. The three would be tied around the same confined area and would stand for hours on end. All three elephants were rescued by Wildlife SOS. Today, Rhea continues to live with Mia, acting as her protector and guardian. You can read more about Rhea's here.

(2) Ayan: What does the adoption money for elephants go towards? Does it pay for food, for

medicines, for shelter, or something else?

Geeta Seshamani: The money goes towards - Food, medicines, enclosures maintenance, buying enrichment raw material, constructing electric fences and admin costs.

(3) Ayan: What is the average lifespan of an elephant in the wild, an elephant in captivity,

and a rescued elephant like Rhea?

Geeta Seshamani: An average lifetime of an elephant in the wild is 60-80 years. The life span of rescue elephants depends on the physical condition that they have been rescued in - most of the elephants have already developed chronic conditions that are not reversible, only manageable. However, rescued elephants tend to live longer due to the nourishment and care they receive.

(4) Ayan: Do you see a change in temperament or personality once elephants like Rhea are

rescued? What changes did you see in Rhea?

Geeta Seshamani: Elephants in captivity forget what it means to be a wild elephant. They are beaten, chained, and starved. When such rescued elephants enter their new homes at Wildlife SOS, they begin to display more natural behavior in a free and safe environment. We have seen elephants evolve from being meek and scared to rambunctious and joyful. Rhea’s story is similar. When she first arrived at Wildlife SOS, she was shy and timid - always awaiting another lash of a bullhook. Slowly, as Rhea started feeling safe in her environment, she became more playful. However, Rhea’s demeanor, in general, is calmer and more reserved than other elephants.

(5) Ayan: How does Rhea spend her days? Who are her friends? What is her routine? What is her diet?

Geeta Seshamani: Rhea’s closest companion is Mia and she is rarely ever spotted apart from her. The two live in the same enclosure and do every activity together.

Rhea (R) & Mia (L), © Wildlife SOS

Rhea is taken on regular morning and evening walks to exercise her limbs. She receives regular medical checkups for her ailing feet. Like our other elephants she also receives regular target training. These trainings use the principle of positive conditioning wherein the desired action is followed by a form of positive reinforcement such as giving a treat. Such training helps carry out integral medical procedures such as blood draws or x-rays easily with elephants. She is fed at regular intervals and is even encouraged to play with various enrichments throughout the day that helps her exercise her neck muscles! For example, her caregiver puts delicious treats in cylindrical tubes around her enclosure that Rhea can access by a little bending and moving.

Rhea's enrichment activity, © Wildlife SOS

Her diet presently consists of seasonal fruits and vegetables. We have even started introducing “mashala” in her food which is a concoction of jaggery carom and turmeric that help elephants retain heat during the winter months.

(6) Ayan: How many elephants do you estimate are in captivity like Rhea, in India?

Geeta Seshamani: As per the latest estimate, there are approximately 2,500 captive elephants in India. This includes elephants at temples, circuses, begging on streets, giving rides, etc. as well as elephants captured after conflict situations and held at Forest Department facilities/camps and elephants in zoos.

(7) Ayan: How many elephants has Wildlife SOS rescued so far?

Wildlife SOS: We have rescued 43 elephants since 2010.

(8) Ayan: How does Wildlife SOS decide which elephant to rescue?