It was the moment Raju the Elephant had waited a lifetime for – a family of his own.
In July 2014 the gentle giant, who captured the hearts of people from around the world when he cried as he was freed from chains after 50 years – joined five female Elephants at Wildlife SOS’s Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in India.
His new family, named the Herd of Hope, have all been rescued from barbaric treatment.
And poignantly, they flapped their ears – an expression of joy – before touching him with their trunks as they welcomed him.
Charity Wildlife SOS founder Kartick Satyanarayan, who led the rescue operation to save Raju, said: ‘We are delighted Raju has fitted in so well with the first family he’s ever had since he was orphaned by poachers as a calf.
‘He had been so terribly brutalized for 50 years that we feared he’d be unable to live with his own kind. He didn’t even know how to be an Elephant. But now it’s like he’s always been with them.
‘When we first released him, he held back, and he was clearly wary. Three of our female Elephants Laxmi, Chanchal and Sai Geeta ran up to him – their ears flapping wildly –a sign they were excited and delighted to meet him. They also made high-pitched trumpeting sounds – a greeting.
‘Then each of them touched him with their trunks, clearly reassuring him before they wandered off into the grazing land at our Elephant Conservation and Care Centre at Mathura. It was incredibly touching after all he’d been through.’
On July 4 this year the charity along with their counterparts in India saved Raju from dying in his bonds in a daring midnight rescue operation.
A team of ten vets and wildlife experts from the charity were joined by twenty Forestry Department officers and six policemen to seize Raju in the Uttar Pradesh region.
Mr Satyanarayan said: ‘He’d been poached as a calf from the wild. Poachers either slaughter the mother, or they drive the herd into traps that are small enough only for the babies to fall into.
‘The mother cries for her baby for days after he’s been stolen – the illegal Elephant trade is sickening. The calves are then tied and beaten until they submit to their owners – their spirits are effectively broken.
‘Raju’s case was particularly tragic as we believe he has been sold again and again and might have had 27 owners – he’s been treated as a commodity and beaten into accepting his new handler every two years of his life.
‘By the time we found him he was in a pathetic condition. He hadn’t been fed properly and tourists started giving him sweet food items and because he was in a state of hunger and exhaustion, he began eating plastic and paper.
‘He had no shelter at night and was being used as a prop to beg with from dawn until dusk or being used for giving tourists joy rides. And most heartrendingly of all – the chains that cut into his legs had been there for 50 years. It was horrific.
‘It took us 45 minutes to remove the shackles that had torn into the flesh on his legs for the past 50 years – an act of unthinkable cruelty.
‘His legs were so covered in abscesses and his feet so damaged by walking on hard tarmac roads, that we have spent much more than expected on his medical treatment, and we still have a long way to go as he has a serious limp and open wounds.’
The Elephants Raju has joined have also suffered horrendously before they were rescued by the charity.
The second most recent member of the herd is eighteen-year-old female Laxmi, saved from the streets of Mumbai ten months ago. Although she was young, she suffered from severe arthritis, obesity and a heart condition.
Mr Satyanarayan said: ‘She’d been exploited and used as a begging prop, she was neglected and her owners had got her addicted to fried junk food.
‘When we saved her she was 1,200 kilos overweight and so fat we had to use a crane to get her onto a specially-strengthened truck to drive her to our centre. She was so huge her knees were giving way and she had early arthritis.
‘Our vets were concerned that she would not live much longer if she was not rescued immediately. But she has a great, if mischievous, character – even on the drive home her trunk kept sneaking through the window and she was searching in the driver’s pockets for a treat.
‘We have spent the last 10 months rehabilitating her – and at first it was a battle to get her to eat the food she should be eating. Now she’s finally getting healthier, leaner and enjoying being a free Elephant.
‘But although Wildlife SOS was given legal custody of her by the Forest Department, her previous cruel owners are petitioning the courts to get her back and so now we are in a court battle to stop her being returned to the abusive situation we rescued her from.’
Chanchal, 16, was rescued on June 29, 2012, on the outskirts of Delhi after she and a second Elephant were hit by a speeding truck.
The second Elephant was killed instantly and Chanchal was left with cuts, shards of glass and wounds all over her body as well as a severely injured leg. She was undernourished and her owners were arrested for negligence.
Mr Satyanarayan said: ‘Her leg was fractured and it’s taken us 18 months to nurse her back to health. She’s slowly rebuilding her life.’
Sai Geeta was a circus Elephant who was rescued after she was made to perform for years with a broken right rear leg.
Mr Satyanarayan said: ‘She still has a terrible limp where the break was never treated – the fracture was severe and when we rescued her she’d suffered for years in pain as it was never allowed to heal as they never allowed her to rest.’
Finally Phoolkali, who is blind in one eye was smuggled illegally for years before the charity was alerted to her plight and immediately stepped in to rescue her.
Mr Satyanarayan said: ‘Phoolkali had spent more than 40 years of her life doing hard labour, being abused and being underfed. And her maltreatment and severe abuse by her previous owners caused her to be blinded in one eye.
‘Her owner would hide her in a windowless, deserted warehouse. Her owner would smuggle her across state borders in the dead of night to avoid detection by the authorities as he has no valid documentation for her legal possession.
‘She was frail and scrawny and almost skeletal in appearance and covered in sores and wounds.
‘Now she loves throwing mud on herself immediately after a long bath – much to the annoyance of her keeper – and also throws mud on him when he isn’t paying attention.’
Today the nightmare for Raju and his herd is a distant memory. And they are also enjoying a rehabilitation pool thanks to the generosity of donors to the centre.
Mr Satyanarayan said: :We are overwhelmed by the generosity of people from so many countries around the globe. We hope that if the donations continue, better facilities can be established for Raju and the other Elephants at the Centre who all deserve a better life to make up for the abuse they suffered all these years.
‘When we rescued him, Raju had never been in a pool before – and now he spends hours relaxing inside it. We’d like to thank everyone who donated – every penny has made such a difference to the quality of his life.
‘And while the pool is immensely pleasurable for him, it also is helping his rehabilitation as the water’s buoyancy enables him to take the weight off his legs which are incredibly painful from years of being shackled.
‘He still faces years of treatment to heal both the physical and psychological wounds. And sadly he’s not alone. We have a dossier of 80 Elephants whose life is in imminent peril and they also need to be rescued before they die of cruelty, exhaustion and abuse.’
Mr Satyanarayan said: ‘Our hope is that along with Raju, we can rescue many more of these tragic cases before it’s too late for them. It will enable them to taste freedom for the first time in their lives and live out their days in dignity, free from suffering and pain.’
Keep up to date at Wildlife SOS’s Elephant Conservation and Care Centre
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