Holding on To Asha, Holding on To Hope

January 24, 2022 | By Roohi Narula
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On 23rd January, our ever-shining ray of Hope, Asha (meaning hope in Hindi), bid us farewell. The Elephant Conservation and Care Center that once reverberated with Asha’s loud trumpets and the laughter of her caregiver, Babu Lal, fell silent. As Asha left, she took a piece of all our hearts with her. Yet, what she left behind was a pivotal lesson in the magical powers of hope and unconditional love. With Asha gone, we vow to never let her loss dictate our future but allow the magical sensation of hope that she embodied to lead us forward.

Hope was a feeling that the world never really wanted Asha to have. This majestic elephant was poached from the wild at a young age and put through the brutal process of Phajaan, which literally translates to breaking of the spirit. In Phajaan, an elephant is isolated and beaten until the last morsel of hope leaves its body and it starts obeying its master. Yet Asha’s spirit never broke. Her body, however, bore the brunt of the violence, becoming too weak to rebel.

Asha at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

Asha was thus forced into a life of labor in the tourism industry. She spent most of her life walking the harsh roads of Jaipur, giving tourists joy rides through the pink city. Asha experienced a severe fall on one such joy ride, injuring her right forelimb. Despite the dire injury, Asha received no medical attention and was forced to keep walking. Her forelimb became permanently deformed, giving her a limp and soon made her dispensable to her captors. Yet, Asha’s woes did not come to an end. She was illegally transferred to Indore, Madhya Pradesh, where her deteriorated body was pushed to the limit as a begging elephant.

By the age of 46, Asha had gone from one captor to another, all of whom put her through immense physical and psychological trauma. Yet when we rescued Asha from her life of misery in 2015, she entered the Elephant Conservation & Care Centre with a sense of belonging and hope – as if she knew all along that fate was conspiring in her favor, and a life of freedom would one day be hers.

Asha with her caregiver Babu Lal [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

Upon arriving, Asha was assigned to Babu Lal, her caregiver who never left her side from the very first day to the very last. Babu Lal and Asha formed an unbreakable bond. The two fell into a rhythmic way routine as if they had known each other for lifetimes. Babu Lal would wake up every morning to feed Asha, bathe her, and would often even spend time sitting next to her in pleasant idleness. Asha would raise her trunk every time she saw Babu Lal approaching her, and he would reciprocate with a gentle pat. It was these gentle pats that got Asha through her intensive medical treatments for the wounds her body had borne during captivity. The frail pachyderm was plagued with degenerative joint disease, multiple chronic wounds, and a critical toenail abscess.

With the loving caress of Babu Lal and the medical care provided by our veterinary team, Asha blossomed into a joyous elephant. She would spend her days taking long dust baths, munching on jaggery and beetroot, and going for strolls next to the Yamuna river. On warmer days, Babu Lal would even take Asha into the pool in her enclosure, where Asha would always doze off, letting the buoyancy of the water carry away the weight of the world. For the first time in her life, Asha was the master of her will, and she would make sure everyone knew. Even today, our team members share a laugh as they recall the rebellious elephant’s habit of taking her daily medicines and hiding them in her mouth. Asha would spit the medicine out only when she knew no one was watching.

Asha’s toe nail being treated [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

Asha’s joyous spirit was so infectious that it transformed anyone it came into contact with. As luck would have it, Asha’s soaring spirit found Suzy and Lakhi, two blind elephants searching for a ray of hope.

Babu Lal recalls the day Asha met Lakhi and Suzy. He says, “I’ve never seen three elephants get along so spontaneously, they were complete strangers, but from the first day itself, they knew – and we knew – this friendship was going to be something unlike any we’d ever seen before.”

Like a divine connection made in elephant heaven, Asha took to Suzy and Lakhi instinctually, playing the role of a matriarchal figure. It took Suzy and Lakhi finding Asha to begin a new era in their lives, filled with compassion and healing. The trio would spend their days venturing into the open field at the center, soaking in the sun. Asha would use various sound calls to help Lakhi and Suzy navigate the world, guiding them every step of the way. On their daily walks, Asha would run her trunk along Suzy and Lakhi’s face, touching them lightly to reassure them that they were safe. However, the dynamic trio soon became a duo as Lakhi passed away in 2018. Even during Lakhi’s last breath, Asha stood calmly and firmly. true to the matriarch she was.

Asha with Lakhi and Coconut [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

Despite all the sorrow that Asha experienced, she remained unabashedly full of hope and love.
With Lakhi gone, Asha only became more protective about Suzy. On their daily walks, Asha would always lead the way looking out for any sign of danger that could harm Suzy. Sometimes Asha would remain still for as long as thirty minutes, refusing to move an inch until she knew Suzy was safe. In Fact, Asha did not limit her loving and protective nature to Suzy. In some ways, she was a protective angel for all of us. On one occasion, Asha spotted a troop of monkeys entering the center. To alert all of us about the upcoming trouble, Asha trumpeted loudly and endlessly until help had arrived.

While Asha spent her entire life healing others, her own body could not withstand the ravages of time. As Asha grew older, her physical condition deteriorated. The frail pachyderm was undergoing various treatments for her multiple ailments such as regular cleansing of her nail abscess, laser therapy for her joints and regular dressing on her hip abscesses. During her last few days, Asha started eating minimally and even refused to touch her favorite snacks of jaggery and beetroot. On 23rd January, Asha passed away in her sleep. She died due to a culmination of senility, degenerative joint disease, and uterine pathology. We imagine Asha passed into the realm of angels, the realm we always knew she was from. Even in her last breath, Asha did not leave Suzy’s side. She passed away, facing Suzy as if watching over her.

Asha and Suzy were like two kindred spirits [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

With her guardian angel gone, Suzy let out loud screeching trumpets. She stood over Asha’s body as if waiting for her to resurrect and gently run her trunk along her face, reminding her that she was safe. Suzy’s ears remained vigilant, waiting for Asha to let out a sound and guide her in the right direction. Yet, Asha will never return, and Suzy will never feel her loving caress again. Babu Lal, too, stood in silence, with a pounding heart and aching chest – a sign of intense grief familiar to those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one.

To bid Asha farewell and to honor her glorious life, our team at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre planted a ficus tree that, much like Asha, would grow and provide a comforting shade to the entire center.

Planting a tree to honor Asha [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

As Babu Lal and Suzy take time to grieve, we ask you all to remember Asha as the fierce, matriarchal, jovial elephant she was. The story of Asha’s life is, in fact, not about what we were able to give her, but about what she gave us – unconditional love and hope in the face of misery. We ask you to hold on to Asha as she continues to live in every wishful thought, in every act of kindness, in every feeling of hope that keeps us going.

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