Rescued elephants find a home, away from home

Laxmi and Phoolmati are friends. They communicate with each other and when it is time to go for a walk, Laxmi conveys the messages to Phoolmati and both saunter around together.

Diti Bajpai/Suyash Shadiza

Mathura. In a world that is in so much conflict with the elephant, here is some good news for the pachyderm on World Elephant Day. Spread over 50 acres in Churmura near Mathura, Uttar Pradesh is a special place where elephants rescued from inhumane existence in captivity can live. Today, the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre run by Wildlife SOS is home to 20 elephants and has more than double that many human caregivers.

Gajraj is the oldest elephant living here. He is 70-years-old and travelled over 1,500 kilometres to be here. He belonged to the Aundh royal family. Aundh is near Satar, Maharashtra. Gajraj was a royal slave. He had come from Ujjain as a gift for the queen but was sent to the temple. Here he remained in chains all his life. For half a century he performed at the temple. Always chained. He developed abscesses in his feet, on his hip and his joints were injured. The worst of it was that his injuries were never attended to. When his pitiable condition came to the notice of PETA, they got in touch with the Wildlife SOS and thus began a massive rescue operation. An elephant ambulance was dispatched to bring Gajraj to Mathura. But it was not that simple. While the royal family was quite happy to see Gajraj get help, the local population did not want their temple elephant to be taken away from them. The rescue team faced extreme hostility from them. They were even subjected to stone pelting. It was finally with the help of the local police and a lot of counseling that the locals allowed Gajraj to be rescued. He travelled all the way from Maharashtra to Mathura with an accompanying team of veterinarians and reached the rescue centre last year. Today, his injuries have healed he is living with the other elephants here.

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Dr Baiju Raj, the director of the Centre, told Gaon Connection, "Elephants are social animals. They cannot live in isolation."

Here, the elephants live together and have even formed friendships. Take the example of Phoolmati and Laxmi.

Phoolmati was rescued from a market of Firozabad. She was limping badly and had apparently been abandoned. We can only guess as to what her life may have been like. She may have been in a circus. Or she may have been used to give rides to children at fairs and festivals. Or she may have been used to beg. In any case, after she was found abandoned and limping badly, she was rescued by the Centre. "When we got her here, the pads of her feet were severely injured. When we were cleaning her feet we found glass pieces and nails embedded inside. We removed more than 250 grams of glass and nails from her feet," says Dr Raj.

Laxmi has come all the way from Mumbai. When she came to the Centre, she was grossly overweight. Her diet had been terribly compromised. She was not fed the kind of food good for elephants. Instead, she would be given vada pao to eat. This had resulted in her excessive weight. After coming to the Centre, she has lost 80 kilograms and is healthy.

Laxmi and Phoolmati are friends. They communicate with each other and when it is time to go for a walk, Laxmi conveys the messages to Phoolmati and both saunter around together.

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Talking about the way elephants land up in captivity, Dr Raj says, "Elephants usually live in a herd of five to eight. Poachers kill them for their ivory tusks and also to steal the young ones. It is not easy to train a grown elephant. So these poachers kill the adults and snatch the baby elephants. To train these baby elephants, they are kept in small boxes and starved. They crush the animal's spirit to ensure that they obey the commands."

Chanchal is another elephant who lives in the Centre. She was traveling from UP to Delhi when the vehicle she was in met with an accident near Agra. Another elephant with her died in the accident and she was left by the road severely injured. For hours she lay there, bleeding, before someone informed the Centre and they sent a rescue team. Rescuing her was a task because lifting an elephant from the ground is no easy job. Injured and in pain, she did not let the rescuers touch her. It was with a great deal of care and patience that she was finally put into the elephant ambulance and brought to the Centre. When she came to the Centre, her injuries, including a broken bone, were fixed and today she is in fine fettle.

All the elephants here have similar back stories – some are from circuses, some from temples, some were used as beasts of burden and others were just severely injured and abandoned. The Elephant Conservation and Care Centre run by Wildlife SOS is the first in India where abused elephants from illegal captivity are rescued and given a safe environment to live in.

Among the facilities for them here is a hydrotherapy pool. There is a digital x-ray machine. Special equipment to take care of their most vulnerable part – their feet has been provided. Since this is a place where these rescued elephants are living out their "retirement" in peace, special care is taken of the elderly pachyderms.

Interestingly, this is a place that provides a home not just to the elephants, but also to their mahouts. This is because despite whatever ill-treatment the mahout may have given to the elephant earlier, they do share a bond. So the mahouts also stay at the Centre to take care of them.

The Centre provides an ambulance service for the elephants. This ambulance is equipped with hydraulic pumps to lift the injured elephants into the vehicle. There are veterinary facilities on board to ensure efficient rescues which are safe for both the animal and team.

Dr Raj says, "We spend Rs 3,000 on each elephant every day. This takes care of their food and medicines. We give them sugarcane, fruits, porridge etc. They have a schedule for everything, be it their food time or walk time or bath time. At 11 am they are all bathed and then are given fruit. After resting till three in the afternoon, they are taken for a walk. We feed them again at six in the evening after which they stay in their enclosure. Separate enclosures have been made for all elephants."

Feeding time can be very interesting as the food is tied high on trees. This is done to ensure that the elephants get some exercise. Reaching up into the trees for food offers a simulation of being in the wild for them.

Dr Raj explains that the elephants who are kept here have suffered extreme abuse at the hands of their previous owners. "We have even collected weapons which were used to threaten the elephants. The condition of the feet of the elephants rescued from circuses was really bad. However, they improve a lot after coming here. We have three doctors here who care for these elephants," he adds.

When the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had come to India, this Centre was on his itinerary. He and his family spent time here and met Phoolmati and Laxmi among others. They spent about an hour here and were told about the ill-treatment that these elephants had lived with.

If you want, even you can spend time with these elephants. You need to call at 9917190666 and book your time slot. They keep the number of visitors limited so as not to alarm the elephants. There is a charge for the visit. According to the time slot you pick, you can be there at feeding time, walking time or bathing time. All visitors are first shown a documentary that sensitizes them to the plight of the elephants and how they should be cared for. Then they are taken to meet the elephants. You can feed them and accompany them on walks.

You can also volunteer. You may be given tasks like chopping the fruits and vegetables for the pachyderms. You can help in washing them.

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