Emotions were high as a team of veterinarians and elephant keepers from Wildlife SOS, Humane Society International’s (HSI) Indian project partners, combined with Forest Department staff and police in the daring rescue of Raju, a 50 year old elephant who has lived his entire life in chains.
Following several months of planning involving undercover surveillance, investigations and court hearings, the team approached in the middle of the night to take Raju to the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura.
“It was incredibly emotional; Raju had been in chains 24 hours a day for 50 years, an act of intolerable cruelty. Until we stepped in he’d never known what it is like to walk free of his shackles, and now begins his journey to learn what kindness feels like. We were astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue, and knew in our hearts he realised he was being freed,” said Wildlife SOS founder Kartick Satyanarayan.
Chains were wound painfully tightly around Raju’s legs in a last ditch attempt by his former owner to prevent the rescue, causing the liberation to take more than 45 minutes, but finally Raju was free. “We all had tears in our eyes as the rope which held the final spike was cut and Raju took his first steps of freedom. The team was exhausted but elated. Raju suffered unthinkable abuse and trauma for so long. His spirit was broken,” said Kartick.
With time being of the essence HSI committed to funding the rescue operation entirely, and is now raising funds to cover costs as well as set Raju up for the rest of his life. The first months are bound to be challenging due to his abusive history, though we are confident Raju’s journey to the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre will see the days of a torment filled life and abusive environment behind him. A special pond is being made and he will not be alone any more, with two male companions in Rajesh and Bhola and five friendly females all eagerly welcoming Raju to the centre.
HSI Director Verna Simpson said that, “The commitment and courage displayed by Wildlife SOS staff throughout the rescue process has been phenomenal. Raju’s case is particularly tragic; after being sold to new owners close to 30 times his condition was shocking, with exhaustion and hunger driving him to eat plastic in a desperate quest for nourishment.”
“This incredibly daring rescue by Wildlife SOS is well worth celebrating, though the road is not clear just yet. There’s a desperate need to cover the costs of the rescue and the construction and maintenance of Raju’s elephant pond and shelter, as well as to foot an elephant-sized feed bill,” Ms Simpson concluded.
Raju lived the first 50 years of his life in chains with very little to eat. Little is known about Raju’s early years but we believe he was poached from the forest as a young calf and then sold to several people, one after the other, for the first 24 years of his life, undergoing abuse and beatings on a regular basis to ‘discipline’ him. Wildlife SOS investigations showed that he was traded as a commodity every two years of his life.
On the 13th of July 2013, Wildlife SOS got to know about Raju through the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department. The Uttar Pradesh Forest Department had started the confiscation process as Raju’s ‘owner’ was found not to have any legal documentation for Raju’s possession. Wildlife SOS supported this move but it took a year for the court orders to be processed, an agonisingly long wait for Raju’s freedom.
One of the things that bull elephants suffer from is the ‘training’ method, so dear to mahouts and justified by time and tradition. Each time the handler of an elephant changes, the new owner wants to be able to control the elephant and begin earning from his new acquisition at once. The new mahout ties up the elephant by all four legs, stretching out his limbs, and then submits him to sound beatings which last over several hours. Apparently this is the sad way in which a frightened animal is made to accept his new master. If the elephant is a bull elephant, he is shackled, usually with spiked anklets and kept chained continuously to make sure he learns to ‘respect’ the new mahout. Raju has all his life worn spiked chains and our investigation shows that these had dug deep into his flesh and created cuticular abscesses and bad wounds. And his mahout habitually carried a spear with which he would prod Raju in sensitive regions to hurry him up when on the road.
Over the year Wildlife SOS observed Raju to be in a pathetic condition with no shelter provided to him to stay in night or day. He was shackled and chained outdoors all the time. During the day, the mahout took Raju to pilgrimage sites and used him as a prop to collect money for himself. This practice continues from early morning till evening with no rest for the elephant even in hot summers. This elephant became the new holy attraction to the temple site and the mahout stopped feeding him as he felt the gifts given by the pilgrims was adequate for the elephant. However, pilgrims coming to the holy river and worshipping the elephant, usually end up giving unhealthy sweets and oily food items which caused serious deterioration of his health. In an acute state of hunger and exhaustion due to a long working day, Raju the elephant had also started accepting any food items in a desperate quest for nourishment, including paper and plastic.
The Humane Society aim to consolidate this success by working with Wildlife SOS to continue to monitor the recovery and ongoing care of Raju, at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura, India.
Story and pictures by Wildlife SOS
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