Addressing The Elephant In Our Hearts: Raju’s 10th Year Of Freedom!

July 4, 2023 | By Sutirtho Roy
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Elephants, along with cetaceans and great apes, are regarded as some of the most intelligent and social animals on Earth. Widely known for their cognitive skills and emotional sensitivity, Asian elephants live in tightly-knit herds. Calves enjoy the company of their mother, aunts, and older siblings for the formative years of their life.

Now imagine a young elephant calf kidnapped from his family before he could comprehend the meaning of survival. Instead of comfortable turf to set his feet in, he is forced to walk on harsh and hot tarmac of the city. After a long day of begging for alms in an unfamiliar urban terrain, he is confined with spiked chains on his feet. 

Raju, the makhna (tuskless) bull, stands tall as he enters his 10th year of freedom. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

The gentle caresses of his mother’s trunk are replaced with the lashes of a brutal bullhook (ankush). Instead of roaming under the open sky or rolling in the mud, this elephant is consigned to a life of slavery. Such was the life Raju had led for almost five decades, a life that lacked anything close to proper nutrition or care.

Raju’s path took an enormous turn when he finally arrived at the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in 2014. As he sets foot into the 10th year of his freedom, let’s recall Raju’s journey from the darkness of neglect to the bright light of humane care.

Raju’s Plight in the Past

Raju was separated from his herd as a young elephant and subjected to the indescribably painful process called phajaan, which broke both his spirit and body. Walking on rough roads had left him with chronic foot pad abscesses, a chronic hip abscess, and tail injuries. Multiple scars spanned across Raju’s entire body. His former owner had even pulled out hairs from Raju’s tail to sell them as good luck charms.

Raju suffered nearly five decades of abuse, neglect and starvation as a begging elephant in Uttar Pradesh. [Photo © Wildlife SOS]

Our investigation revealed that after every one to two years of his life, Raju was traded as a commodity. At one point, he was even taken to the Sonpur fair in Bihar, where elephants are unlawfully exchanged under the false pretext of an exhibition!

Devoid of dignity and freedom, Raju’s life was one of ceaseless turmoil. It was in 2014 when the first glimmer of hope shone for this tormented pachyderm.

Our dearest Raju looks forth to a bright present and a hopeful future; truly a changed pachyderm from his traumatic days as a begging elephant. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

The Story of his Rescue 

Raju’s suffering was first brought to Wildlife SOS’ attention by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department. However, it took a year to obtain all the required paperwork including legal documentation to begin Raju’s rehabilitation. At long last, it was in July 2014 that our determined team launched the rescue operation for Raju.

However, the lack of cooperation from Raju’s mahout and his prior owner made it exceedingly challenging to save him. They had chained Raju with tightened spikes and had even ordered local people to block the routes of the rescue vehicle.

Raju saw the light emerge at the end of the dark tunnel of captivity when he was finally rescued in 2014. [Photo © Wildlife SOS]

It took patience and perseverance for our rescue team to coax Raju to get onto the special ten-wheel truck that was to carry him. Accompanying this truck was a convoy of vehicles, including those of the forest department and the pilot vehicle from Wildlife SOS. After 50 years of captivity, Raju’s countdown to freedom began during the 16-hour-long journey to the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre.

The veterinary team continually hosed Raju with cool water to prevent dehydration in the carrier. Throughout the journey, the team ensured that his energy levels were kept up through a constant supply of fresh food. For the very first time, Raju’s starved body found a satisfying meal of scrumptious fruits like bananas, jackfruits and mangoes along the way.

One Small Step for Raju, One Giant Leap for Elephant Kind

Raju’s traumatic story quickly spread far and wide. The historic moment when Raju finally stepped into the Wildlife SOS rehabilitation centre moved many to tears. Support began pouring in from across the globe, as Raju’s physical condition opened several eyes to the desperate plight of captive elephants in the country. 

Raju experiences his first breath of freedom since his forced separation from his herd as a calf. [Photo © Wildlife SOS]

One of the biggest dance music production companies in the USA even made a record for Raju, which became well-known internationally! Raju was introduced to a new world of care and affection, the likes of which he had never known before. An elephant never forgets, but our team made every effort possible to help Raju overcome his physical and psychological trauma. 

For the first few weeks in his new surroundings, Raju was timid and frail. But soon, he showed a strong will to become familiar with his environment. Walking on scorching roads had become a chapter of the past and refreshing, long dips in the jumbo pool was what Raju eagerly awaited each day! 

It was a true delight to watch this ageing pachyderm playfully engage with the tyre enrichment provided for him. Raju was finally getting the right food and the exercise he needed. His diet was carefully curated, and our vets and caregivers were beside him every step of the way.

An aerial view of Raju’s enclosure shows how lush and expansive his new home is, a stark contrast to the cramped urban space he was confined in for five decades. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

Celebrating A Life of Freedom!

Raju’s rescue from a tragic past highly upholds the meaning of freedom. 

Raju completed his 1st year at the Wildlife SOS centre on 4th of July, 2015. To mark this occasion, a massive fruit cake was prepared in honour of Raju’s independence. The grand celebration symbolised Raju’s rebirth into this new life!

A large cake commemorated Raju’s 1st year of freedom. [Photo © Wildlife SOS]

Since then, Raju and all of us at Wildlife SOS have celebrated his rescue anniversaries on 4th of July each year with immense delight! Let’s show you how! 

Raju welcomes the 2nd year of his freedom with playful pool time! [Photo © Wildlife SOS]
Relaxing dust baths are a new part of Raju’s life under the care of Wildlife SOS [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]
Raju playfully engages with this creative installation on his 4th rescue anniversary! [Photo © Wildlife SOS]
On his 5th rescue anniversary, our team made a special dessert for Raju using cooked ragi porridge, pumpkins and his favourite watermelons. [Video (c) Wildlife SOS]
Raju celebrated his 6th year of freedom at the centre with scrumptious watermelons in the cool comfort of his pool! [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS]
The team presented a wonderful cake to Raju for his 7th year under Wildlife SOS care! [Video (c) Wildlife SOS]
Raju’s name was spelt with bananas for his 8th rescue anniversary! [Video (c) Wildlife SOS]

As Raju enters his 10th year of freedom, we all knew it was something special – for both our dearest elephant and the team. As the elaborate celebrations began, our staff put together a jumbo-sized fruit feast for this aged pachyderm.

Dedicated Care For Raju the Elephant

When Raju was rescued, he had multiple injuries including a tail injury common to begging elephants, persistent foot pad abscesses and a chronic hip abscess. Despite being a long-term wound, effective treatment by the veterinary team has helped to heal the tail injury considerably. 

Coconut oil and ointment is still being applied on his tail to prevent any infection. He is also being treated for foot pad abscesses on both of his hind legs. Raju’s foot pad’s condition has significantly improved as a result of the frequent, closely supervised medicated foot baths.

Our dearest Raju plays with his tyre enrichment in his pool. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Shreshtha Pachori]

Raju also gets his nails and also his foot pads groomed on a daily basis. Our veterinarians can’t stop praising our dearest Raju for his willingness to cooperate, despite the fact that he is partially in musth currently. With the help of his caregiver, he enters the protected contact area peacefully and maintains his composure the entire time.

Raju loves gorging on juicy fruits like watermelons, bananas and papayas, while bottle gourds, pumpkins and cucumbers ensure that he receives the proper nutrition and stays hydrated. His cage feeders and the poles enclosing it are frequently stocked with a sizable amount of chari (sorghum) fodder by the caregivers.

Raju cooperated perfectly well with his vets as they treated the injury on his tail. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

Raju’s health has come a long way with positive results. Seeing his motivation to heal has encouraged all of us at Wildlife SOS to help elephants that are still bound by iron chains of captivity. To support the wellbeing of our resilient Raju, consider becoming his sponsor!

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