Tell us who you are and how you started working with Wildlife SOS? My name is Steve Koyle and I’m the Senior Elephant Keeper at the Phoenix Zoo. I’ve been working with elephants for almost 13 years. I had the honor of meeting Kartick and Geeta three years ago at an elephant conference in Oakland, CA. I became inspired by the work of Wildlife SOS and soon after traveled to India to volunteer with Wildlife SOS.
You have worked with many elephants before, how would you describe Raju’s Personality, how is he unique and how is he ‘typical’ for an elephant? Raju is an amazing elephant. It was only one month after his rescue that I traveled to India for the second time to help. Knowing his history of abuse and mistreatment, I couldn’t believe how calm and comfortable he seemed. Raju is a “gentle giant”, standing 10’6” at the shoulder
What did you discover in terms of his likes and dislikes? Raju really seemed to respond well to being spoken to in a nice and calm manner… he enjoys being treated kindly. Like most elephants, he enjoys fresh produce and the occasional sweets.
Why would an elephant that has been abused need training? All captive elephants need training. Training for basic husbandry such as checking and trimming feet, mouth exams and drawing blood are very important aspects of elephant care. Most rescued elephants usually have some sort of medical issue caused from abuse and mistreatment. Training is essential to medically treat these wounds in a nice, calm and chain free way.
How do you go about training an elephant like Raju? What are some of the things you worked with him on? I mainly worked on target training with Raju. Target training, which relies on positive reinforcement for the elephants for repeated actions, has been found to greatly reduce the elements of stress, tension, and danger. Knowing that in his past he was repeatedly stabbed with a spear, I must admit that I was a little apprehensive to touch him with a target. I wasn’t sure how he would react and I didn’t what to betray his trust. To my pleasant surprise, all he wanted to do was eat the target.
For me, the first step in training Raju was to spend the first few days just being around him. I started by tossing him some food and putting some positive energy out there. I didn’t want to do too much to fast. Eventually, we got to head target training. He was a superstar.
You were with him for two weeks, can you tell us if you saw any changes with him? Working with Raju, we made very good progress with his target training. He became more comfortable with me and the training. In November, we’ll continue more of his training and improving the quality of his life.
Working with Raju, can you tell he has had a difficult life? Outside of Raju’s physical appearance and obvious injuries, you couldn’t really tell he’s had a difficult life. This is a true testament to how great Raju and all elephants are. The capacity that elephants have to forgive people for what has been done to them is truly remarkable.
What do you think will be his biggest challenges as he adjusts to being a free elephant? The biggest challenge that Raju faces is simply learning how to be an elephant. He’s been told what to do, beaten and abused for many years. Now he has the freedom of choice. He has the option of swimming, dusting, scratching, foraging and sleeping on big sand beds under the stars. Raju has never had the option to do these normal elephant behaviors. Now, he can do as he chooses. He’s free.
How is Raju with the other elephants? Raju is very good with the female elephants. He is fond of the three munchkins, Laxmi, Chanchal and Bijli; he’s very relaxed and comfortable with them. He and Laxmi seem to really like each other. They were very relaxed with one another.
Last thoughts… for people who want to know what they can do to help elephants, what would you tell them? For people who want to help elephants, I would recommend supporting elephant conservation organizations like Wildlife SOS. I would tell people never to buy ivory and never to ride an elephant.