By Sarah Arnold
Raju the elephant was beaten, abused and forced to go hungry until animal charity workers rescued him last week
For 50 years Raju the elephant was held in chains, beaten and abused – a pitiful site with his legs bleeding from spiked shackles and living on handouts from passing tourists, writes Sarah Arnold in the Sunday People.
He was so hungry he would eat plastic and paper to fill his empty stomach.
But last week animal charity workers swooped to save him in a daring midnight rescue operation on the streets of India.
Some experts believe elephants cry when overcome with emotion, just like humans. And Raju’s rescuers insist the giant animal wept as he realised his ordeal was coming to an end.
Pooja Binepal, of Wildlife SOS-UK, said: “Raju was in chains 24 hours a day, an act of intolerable cruelty. The team were astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue.
“It was incredibly emotional. We knew in our hearts he realised he was being freed.
“Elephants are majestic and highly intelligent animals. We can only imagine what torture the past half a century has been for him.
“Until we stepped in he’d never known what it is like to walk free of his shackles.
“But today he knows what freedom is and he will learn what kindness feels like.”
A 10-strong team of vets and wildlife experts from the charity, based in Palmers Green, North London, were joined at midnight on Thursday by 20 Forestry Commission officers and two policemen to rescue Raju.
The mission took place under cover of darkness to avoid detection and spare suffering Raju from the searing heat of the sun in the Uttar Pradesh region of India.
It had been exactly a year since the charity was alerted to this plight by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department. A confiscation process had gone through the courts before Raju was seized.
Pooja explained: “Very little is known about his early years but we believe he was poached from his mother as a young calf.
“The poachers either slaughter mothers 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. It is a sickening trade. The calves are then tied and beaten until they submit to their owners. Their spirits are broken.
“Raju’s case was particularly tragic. He has been sold on and on. We believe he has had up to 27 owners. By the time we found him he was in a pathetic condition. He had no shelter at night and was used as a beggars’ prop from dawn until dusk.
“He wasn’t fed properly and was in a state of hunger and exhaustion. He began eating plastic and paper.
“His nails are severely overgrown, he has abscesses and wounds because of his spiked shackles and continually walking on a Tarmac road has led to his footpad overgrowing.”
Once a court order was issued, a team led by Wildlife SOS founder Kartick Satyanarayan carried out two days of surveillance, fearing Raju’s owner, known as a mahout, would flee.
Kartick explained: “We had to act quickly as his situation was so desperate and the cruelty so extreme. The spikes on his chains were cutting into his flesh. Each time he moved pus would ooze out of the wounds. Pain and brutality were all he knew.
“His cruel handler even tore out the hair from his tail to sell as good luck charms. The exploitation and abuse just had to stop.”
But even as the mercy mission began, Raju’s owner tried to prevent his rescue.
Kartick said: “He began to shout commands to terrify Raju and try to provoke him. It created an incredibly dangerous situation because a bull elephant can snap a human like a toothpick if he becomes afraid or angry.
“Then he put chains around Raju’s legs in an attempt to stop us moving him. They were so viciously tight they were cutting into his legs.
“But we stood our ground and refused to back down. And as we did so, tears began to roll down Raju’s face. Some no doubt were due to the pain but he also seemed to sense that change was coming. He felt hope for the first time.
“We knew it was now or never so we made the decision to move his transportation truck closer and walk him 200 yards. Every step was agony but we had to take him. We decided to remove the shackles after we’d got him to safety.”
Once the five-and-a-half-ton elephant was loaded on an open truck and sedated, he was driven 350 miles to the charity’s Elephant Conservation and Care Centre at Mathura.
Kartick said: “He took his first step to freedom at one minute past midnight on July 4, US independence day. It felt fitting.
“The other elephants in the sanctuary woke up as we pulled in and came to have a look. It was an extraordinary moment.” Raju was fed bananas, banana leaves, mangoes and some bread and biscuits and given water.
The charity’s head wildlife vet Dr Yaduraj Khadpekar then began the painstaking process of removing his shackles.
Kartick said: “It took 45 minutes to liberate him. The chains wound round his legs caused pain if anyone tried to take them off. Four mahouts gently persuaded him to sit and finally we were able to give him his liberty.
“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.
“The cruel spiked shackle will go to a museum to raise awareness of a vile trade.
“He will be held in an isolation pen for a week while he receives emergency medical attention. When he is ready he will join two companion elephants called Rajesh and Bhola, who also once suffered unthinkable cruelty.
“Bhola was blind and was run over by a truck. But despite his terrible spinal and trunk injuries his mahout forced him to work until we rescued him from the streets, a living skeleton. Rajesh was brutally beaten in a circus. It made him dangerous until he began to trust again. They’ve both been rehabilitated and Raju will learn how to live again by following their example.
“He will then join the rest of the elephants, including five flirtatious females. He’ll spend the rest of his life in a safe compound in dignity and free from suffering and pain.”
The charity, which depends on donations, is trying to raise £10,000 to help start Raju’s new life. To contribute, go to wildlifesos.org, or send cheques or postal orders to Wildlife SOS-UK, 483 Green Lanes, London N13 4BS Video.