Believed to have been snatched from his mom as a young calf, Raju the elephant is thought to have had 27 owners and was being used as a beggars’ “prop” in Allahabad from dawn until dusk. For 5 decades, he was heartlessly abused, held shackled in spiked chains, and forced to live off plastic and paper scraps from passing tourists. Because his legs were bound in spiked chains, it made walking difficult and left him with chronic wounds.
However, that all changed when wildlife conservationists, Wildlife SOS, swopped in to set him free.
Wildlife SOS is a group established in 1995 to protect endangered wildlife in India. They found out about Raju’s story through India’s Forestry Commission. On the night of 2nd July, they set out with 10 veterinarians and experts along with 20 Forestry Commission officers and 6 policemen to save Raju in the Uttar Pradesh region of India.
When the group attempted to rescue Raju, Raju’s owner and mahout (an individual who rides elephants) apparently attempted to dismantle the effort with a standoff, trying to shout commands to Raju in order to provoke him and tightly chaining the animal’s legs. It created an incredibly dangerous situation as a bull elephant could snap a human like a tooth pick if he becomes afraid or angry.
But the rescue missions was successful and the elephant, which took his first freedom steps on July 4, was seemingly emotional about his rescue, with Wildlife SOS members even noticing tears in his eyes:
According to Pooja Binepal, a spokesman for Wildlife SOS:
Raju was in chains 24 hours a day, an act of intolerable cruelty. He had no shelter for him at night, and was being used as a prop to beg from dawn until dusk from tourists visiting the sites of India. 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. His nails are severely overgrown, he has abscesses and wounds because of the shackles and continually walking on a tarmac road has led to his foot pad overgrowing. The team were astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue. It was incredibly emotional. We knew in our hearts he realized 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 – it’s a truly pitiful case. But today he knows what freedom is and he will learn what kindness feels like and what it’s like to not suffer any more.
The team had to go in with fruits and speak softly to Raju to reassure him that they were there to help. As tears rolled down Raju’s face, Wildlife SOS’ head veterinarian Dr. Yaduraj Khadpekar removed the spiked chains from Raju’s feet. It took him and two handlers 45 minutes to liberate him as they’d been wound round his legs to prevent their removal and to cause pain if anyone tried to take them off.
After which, Raju was sedated and loaded onto the back of a truck. Once he was loaded and given additional sedation, a convoy then escorted the five and a half tonne elephant, 350 miles on the back of an open topped lorry to the charity’s Elephant Conservation and Care Centre at Mathura. Once at the centre, Raju was given a bath and emergency medical attention.
There, Raju took his first steps to freedom at 12:01am on 4th July – America’s Independence Day.
The centre will continue to rehabilitate him by treating his physical wounds and introducing him to other elephants at the centre. There is a lot of bad/evil in the world but we’re glad that he can now walk with dignity and more importantly, walk pain-free. Elephants can live a long time, up to 70 years. Here’s hoping to a decade or so more of glorious years of freedom for Raju the elephant.
More pictures from the rescue mission and of Raju the elephant in this gallery: