The One Eared Elephant’s Tale of Freedom

December 29, 2020 | By Smriti Suri
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Anybody who has worked with elephants goes on to discover that bulls are much more temperamental than females. They are more independent, curious and spend much of their time in a solitary manner, preferring their solace more than anything. Our magnificent resident tusker Suraj displays few of these traits, however, highlighting the extent to which wild animals lose their instincts after prolonged periods of confinement.

Suraj, an erstwhile temple elephant, spent decades in a dark, dank room that was too small for him. He was shackled to a post with spiked chains and left there for hours at a time without food or water. When we first laid eyes on Suraj, his health was severely deteriorated and his body was riddled with multiple bull-hook wounds, foot rot and he had a terribly malnourished frame. One of Suraj’s most noticeable traits is the absence of his left ear – possibly lost when he was a young calf. Suraj’s story was absolutely heartbreaking and his rescue garnered support from across the globe.

Suraj’s rescue garnered support from across the globe. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

Once rehabilitated at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre (ECCC), Suraj underwent treatment for the injuries he sustained at the hands of his former owners and gained a healthy amount of weight while developing a hearty appetite. He was given supplements with his meals mainly consisting of sugarcane, green fodder and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Slowly but steadily, Suraj overcame his apprehension and distrust, gradually beginning to trust his caregivers and the elephant support staff. He was also introduced to our target training program: when Suraj did what the keeper required of him, he was rewarded with praise and a treat. If he doesn’t comply with an instruction, he was denied the treat- but no force or negative reinforcement is used to punish or reprimand him. The teaching of the commands is done by a process known as ‘target training,’ where the desired response from the elephant is referred to as the ‘target’.

Five years down the line, Suraj has made considerable strides towards recuperation! Standing in a pool of sunlight in his enclosure, golden rays glinting off his majestic tusks, the magnificent bull paints a serene picture. He is one of the gentlest bulls in our care and matinees a calm demeanour. He enjoys his food with gusto, emitting low-pitched rumbles while polishing off mounds of fresh sugarcane. Due to the dipping temperatures, we have introduced vegetables like cabbage, beetroot and legumes like chickpeas into his diet. Served along with a preparation of jaggery, spices and condiments to regulate their body temperatures, fruit buckets are also quite popular with Suraj – apples and papayas being some of his favourites.

The magnificent bull paints quite a serene picture. [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

Along with his diet, we’ve also introduced other measures to help Suraj fight the cold. In the coming weeks he will begin wearing a fleece jacket and we will also be putting up tarpaulin curtains surrounding his enclosures and halogen bulbs within to keep the biting wind out. We are taking every precaution to keep Suraj snug and warm and ready to face the oncoming chill head on!

When you think of how Suraj spends his mornings, it inadvertently always involves his mid-morning siestas. And Suraj has a particular routine to follow, hardly ever deviating from it. Suraj enjoys falling asleep outside after enjoying a dust bath session. The dust protects him from sunburns on his sensitive skin by acting as sunscreen! In his moments of leisure, he enjoys snapping branches of a nearby neem tree and scratching himself with it. We have noticed that ever since his arrival at our centre, Suraj has loved regular dips in the pool, and things haven’t changed in the slightest even today.

Suraj enjoying a dust bath session [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

We also know how important it is for Suraj to get his exercise, so our staff designs enrichments specifically contrived to help Suraj exercise local muscles while extracting treats from them. His particular favourite is the hanging hay net feeder which has been customized to dispense treats from a height, thus ensuring his magnificent tusks are out of the way too.

As Suraj celebrates five years with Wildlife SOS, we are delighted to share Suraj’s journey. Watching the regal elephant live life at a content and measured pace, enjoying the bright sunlight and greenery at ECCC is utterly a pleasure. Standing in the distance, flapping his one large ear , Suraj paints quite an awe-inspiring picture and we are determined to never let him experience the terror of a shackled existence ever again.

We know how important it is for Suraj to get his exercise! [Photo (c) Wildlife SOS/Mradul Pathak]

Happy Rescueversary, Suraj!

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