In July 2019 Raju, a rescued Indian elephant, celebrated his fifth year of freedom, and to commemorate the milestone his keepers threw him quite the party complete with an elephant-friendly cake made from vegetables, fruits and beans and topped with sugarcane. Since escaping a life of slavery and abuse in 2014, Raju has lived peacefully at the Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura, India.
A lifetime of mistreatment
Today, Raju enjoys roaming free in his vast enclosure, taking dips in the pool and munching on bananas and watermelons. However, the elephant’s life used to be very different. It’s believed that Raju entered the world out of captivity but that at a young age he was taken from his family and subjected to 50 years of abuse. He was forced to walk in chains through the hot streets of India, earning rupees for his handlers.
These handlers, who are referred to as “mahouts” in Asia, train and care for elephants; typically, two to three are attached to one animal. According to The Wall Street Journal, there were nearly 8,000 mahouts working in India in 2013. But the profession is notoriously tough: as well as a meager salary – some are paid the equivalent of $8 a month – the accident rate is high. A study by the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation found that over 90% of mahouts had been hurt by elephants.
According to the Wildlife SOS India website, “People would give the mahout tips in exchange for ‘blessings’ by Raju.” But little of that money was spent on keeping Raju healthy. Pooja Binepal, a representative for the charity, told HuffPost in 2014, “He hasn’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.”
Raju’s long stints on the asphalt-covered roads left him with some serious health issues. His footpads and nails became overgrown, and he was in danger of developing severe infections. His handlers also attached spiked shackles to his ankles that tore open his skin as he walked.
By the time that Wildlife SOS became aware of Raju’s case, it’s thought that the elephant had already been passed from owner to owner as many as 27 times. It took a year for the charity to reach an agreement with India’s Uttar Pradesh Forest and Wildlife Department to obtain legal permission to take Raju away from his latest handler.
The rescue mission
As Raju’s previous owner, Mr. Shahid, could not produce official paperwork legitimizing his ownership, legally the elephant was to be looked after by Wildlife SOS. According to The Independent, keeping elephants without proper documentation is relatively common in India; some mahouts even use forgeries that say their elephants are healthy enough to take part in processions.
So saving Raju required some stealth, in case his mahout refused to cooperate. In the middle of the night on July 2, 2014, a team of animal specialists and police officers covertly located Raju and broke his chains.
The elephant’s condition did not look good. “His withering body bore multiple scars from ‘ankush’ (bullhook) use, and his spirit was all but broken – a testament to the ordeals he had been through,” Wildlife SOS India’s website describes.
As the team worked to take off each of the shackles, the abused elephant started to cry. “Raju was in chains 24 hours a day – an act of intolerable cruelty,” Binepal told HuffPost. “The team was astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue. It was incredibly emotional.”
The team worked through the night to remove Raju’s painful chains, but problems arose when his previous handlers were unwilling to part with him. They bound additional shackles to the elephant and set up obstructions along the path to the charity’s rescue vehicle.
Raju finds a new home
After several hours, the rescuers successfully coaxed Raju onto their truck and transported him over 300 miles across the country to Wildlife SOS’s Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura. Here, the team tended to the elephant’s wounds and treated his malnutrition.
According to Wildlife SOS, Raju was anxious when he first arrived at the center and found it hard to walk chain-free for the first time in 50 years. “It took him a few weeks to familiarize himself with his new home and to accept that he was finally free and that his life had changed for the better,” a post on the website reads.
Binepal explained to HuffPost, “Until we stepped in, [Raju had] 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.”
The wider problem
Sadly, Raju is not the only victim of such terrible mistreatment. In April 2018 up to 4,000 elephants were in captivity in India, according to the BBC. The giant mammals are tortured, beaten and forced to carry tourists around on their backs or to perform at busy outdoor events, such as religious holidays. Many captive elephants develop painful abrasions on their feet, and it’s common practice for mahouts to chain the animals up in huts.
However, the situation is beginning to improve for captive elephants in India. The country’s Supreme Court banned flogging elephants at a particular animal auction and asked authorities to forbid the animals’ involvement in religious festivities. These are critical steps towards ensuring that many more mistreated elephants will one day lead rich, fulfilling lives like Raju.
Raju’s handlers are overjoyed with his progress. Kartick Satyanarayan, the CEO and one of the founders of Wildlife SOS India – the charity that saved Raju – told Metro, “The past five years with Raju [have] been an incredible journey for all of us. His determination to get better has accelerated his recovery to an extent that nobody was sure was possible.”
Satyanarayan told Metro, “Watching Raju enjoy his retirement in peace fills our heart with happiness and keeps us motivated to help other elephants that continue to be treated with such cruelty as he was.”