FOR many years, Suraj the elephant was kept shackled in spiked chains in a dark room of a temple in Maharashtra, India.
He suffered from severe malnutrition, multiple wounds and even lost his left ear; probably to a poacher when he was still a calf. He has now found a home at the Elephant Care & Conservation Center (ECCC) in Mathura where he gets the pampering he deserves.
But the story doesn’t stop at Suraj; several animals are still going through the abuse that benefits of their two-legged mammalian brothers.
The signage of ECCC on the Mathura-Agra highway did light up my face for a moment, but only for a moment. That initial joy was quickly replaced by a swirl of emotions when I entered its premises.
Spread over 25 acres of land, the center is reachable through a broken path. The facility was opened in 2010 by Wildlife SOS, a non-profit organisation that runs several rehabilitation centers across India with an objective of rescuing wild animals in distress.
Their most accomplished project can be witnessed a few kilometers away from this center at Keetham, which has in its care 194 sloth who were subjected to a ‘dancing bear trade’ in India.
“You will not find a single bear dancing on the streets of India now,” said Hari, the Education Officer at the center in Mathura.
Located on the outskirts of Mathura, the ECCC currently looks after 20 elephants that have been rescued from miserable, often abusive conditions. Four other elephants are kept in a facility in Yamunanagar district in Haryana.
“These elephants have been rescued from circuses, temples, and places where they were put into commercial trade. Many were found in captivity in pathetic conditions, afflicted with injuries on one body part or another,” said Hari in a subdued tone. It made me cringe when I was told that one elephant was brought in with nails in his leg and was in deplorable mental health.
As I watched the creatures during feeding time, I questioned my lack of knowledge about these centers for all these years. After all, Mathura is my birthplace. I have lived important years of my life here. Indeed, Wildlife SOS does not believe in publicizing its noble efforts and follows strict regulations of entry.
“We curtail the mass visits as it is not a zoo, but at the same time, we welcome people who genuinely want to know about the lives of our elephants and help with donations,” said Hari.
My unintended visit gave me a hard time getting through its gates. For the same reason, I didn’t get a chance to see the elephants up-close. To visit, you must inform the center in advance and pay a fee for a guided tour that goes into the welfare of its residents.
Learning to trust humans again
These elephants have spent most their lives in fetters and have lost their wild instincts. If left in the jungle, they probably won’t make it.
“We are trying to follow modern guidelines because the traditional ways of handling elephants are pitiable,” said Hari.
The regular assaults they faced while in confinement have left them timid and withdrawn. Here, in the facility, they are under constant observation of experienced veterinarians. The caretakers are, in fact, former mahouts who have been trained to nurse battered elephants with special care.
Each elephant has a name. A set routine occupies them during the day that includes walking twice a day, bathing, feeding, etc. They live like a family.
I wonder what it is like for them, trusting humans again.
Hari calls this place an old-age home for elephants that assures them a haven till their last breath. It is strictly not meant for breeding and that’s why females and males have separate sections.
How does the center sustain?
Wildlife SOS works with the state forest departments under the terms such that the land is given to them on a lease, but they receive no monetary aid from the state or central government to run the facility.
They survive largely on donations. Money is also raised through selling merchandise including handwoven bags and handicrafts made by the village women. A portion of each sale goes directly to the community.
Taking care of an elephant is, naturally, a mammoth task. Every day the facility requires 3,000kg of fodder and 800kg of fruits to feed 20 elephants.
Food for thought
Some of us make decisions in the name of traditions while the rest of us meekly become a part of it. For instance, the procession of a bridegroom on a mare in Hindu weddings, or the simple decision to watch animals perform acrobatic stunts in a circus. But this decision, while small, gives these perpetrators the motivation to conduct more shows.
This Elephant Rehabilitation Center was a serendipitous encounter that left me questioning morality of the entire nation. In a country where people die every day of hunger, animals indeed hold no prominence.
But, how is this right? We’d spend money to maintain extravagant lifestyles but we don’t do the same to save an animal from the cruelty of man.
Perhaps it is time to question our actions, make conscious choices, and refuse some of these unreasonable traditions. Just give this a little thought.
For donations: You can sponsor an elephant for a day with the nominal donation of US$25. Visit wildlifesos.org for more information.