Warm sunlight reflects of his magnificent tusks, as the large bull elephant steps gingerly off the Wildlife SOS Elephant Ambulance and into the Elephant Conservation & Care Centre, Mathura. For Suraj, whose name literally translates to ‘sun’ in Hindi, sunshine is as special a treat as the sugarcane and bananas being offered to coax him off the vehicle. The 45 year old elephant has spent nearly his entire life in a dank, dark room in a temple in Satara, Maharashtra, painfully restrained by terrifying spiked chains. When our veterinarians first visited Suraj in the temple, they were horrified by what they saw. Standing in the dingy cell, the elephant’s gaunt body was riddled with bull-hook wounds, his tail had sustained an injury that had been left untreated, and his feet, surrounded by the filth of his own excrement and waste, were in an advanced stage of foot-rot. As he shifted uncomfortably in his place, to the noise of heavy chains, the veterinarian realised that the bull’s entire left ear was missing- questioning the mahout offered up no satisfactory explanations to the injury.
Once the necessary paperwork was in order, the rescue team headed in the direction of Satara- inspite of a certain threat of hostility and possible danger.
Despite apprehending the mahouts prior to the commencement of the operation, the team was wary of resistance impeding the rescue, until the district administration kindly guaranteed its full support.
Mr. Ashwin Mudgal, the District Collector of Satara, said, “My firm belief that cruelty and abuse of any animal is inhumane and needs to be stopped motivated me to lend my full support to Wildlife SOS during the rescue of Suraj. I wish the happiest life of freedom to this elephant and the best to Wildlife SOS to keep saving more animals from such horrors.”
Ten extremely tense hours of negotiation followed as the team, accompanied by a force of more than 70 law-enforcement officers and 3 hired body guards, tried to reason with the temple officials, even as an ever growing mob of irate locals posed a constant risk of violence.
The support of the local police played a crucial role in keeping the mob at bay in what was an extremely volatile situation.
With a little luck and lots of determination on our side, we finally won out and Suraj found himself being led to the awaiting Wildlife SOS elephant ambulance. After what seemed like an extremely stressful eternity to the immensely worried team, the ambulance doors closed and the vehicle slowly eased out of the narrow entrance to the temple, and made its way towards Mathura, with the trunk of a newly rescued elephant peeking over the walls of the carrier.
Four days later, the truck was pulling into the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, to an eagerly awaiting group of staff members and the other 17 rescued elephants at the centre. The warm winter sun on his painfully thin frame is an unusual, but much welcome, sensation, and Suraj seems to realise that he is safe here, and free finally. He ambles happily around the centre, enjoying the treats being doled out to him and even taking the time for a relaxing mud bath. Watching him excitedly exploring the facility, taking in his new home with the sunshine on his back, left us speechless and happy. We can’t wait to watch him recover and find peace at our centre.
Ms. Poonam Mahajan, Secretary- BJP and Member Of Parliament-Mumbai North Central, whose invaluable support really pushed the rescue and helped Wildlife SOS achieve this seemingly impossible task, was thrilled at Suraj’s arrival at the sanctuary, “Elephants have an intrinsic link to India’s heritage and culture. Sadly, the reality is completely different. Despite, their God-like status, they are abused in temples, where tradition is cited as an excuse for this cruelty. I would love to see all of India’s temple elephants rehabilitated, and hope that Suraj’s rescue is just the first of many, setting a precedent to other temples to move away from the abuse of elephants. Elephants are so close to human beings in their nature. Their families are just like ours. To snatch them from these families and isolate them in temples is a great sin and crime.”