An elephant who was cruelly kept in spiked shackles for 50 years has been released.
Held in chains, beaten, abused and living on handouts from passing tourists, Raju was a pitiful sight on the streets of India.
Day after day he was forced to hold out his trunk, begging for a few coins and was often left so hungry he'd eat plastic and paper to fill his empty stomach.
Scroll down for a gallery of Raju's moving story in pictures
But last week a North London-based charity Wildlife SOS stepped in to save Raju.
During the daring midnight rescue, which saw the beast finally freed on 4 July, tears were seen rolling down his noble face, as if he was weeping with gratitude.
Spokesman Pooja Binepal said: “Raju has spent the past 50 years living a pitiful existence in chains 24 hours a day, an act of intolerable cruelty. The team were astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue. It was so incredibly emotional for all of us. We knew in our hearts he realised he was being freed.
“Elephants are not only majestic, but they are highly intelligent animals, who have been proven to have feelings of grief, so we can only imagine what torture half a century has been like for him.
“Until we stepped in he'd never known what it is like to walk free of his shackles – it's a truly pitiful case.
“But today he knows what freedom is and he will learn what kindness feels like and what it's like to not suffer any more.”
Last week a 10-strong team of vets and wildlife experts from the charity were joined by 20 Forestry Department officers and six policemen to seize Raju in the Uttar Pradesh area of India.
The mission took place under the cover of darkness, as fewer people would be around for the dangerous rescue, and travelling at night also protected him from the searing heat of the sun.
It was exactly a year since the charity was alerted to Raju's plight by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department in India.
A confiscation process had gone through the courts as Raju's owner did not have any legal documents for his possession.
Pooja explained: “Very little is known about his early years but we believe he was poached from the his mother as a young calf.
“The poachers either slaughter the mother, or they drive the herd into traps that are small enough only for the babies to fall into. The mother cries for her baby for days after he's been stolen – it is a sickening trade.
“The calves are then tied and beaten until they submit to their owners – their spirits are effectively broken.
“We discovered Raju's case was particularly tragic. He'd been poached as a calf and then he has been sold on and sold on. Incredibly we believe he has had up to 27 owners – he's been treated as a commodity every two years of his life.
“By the time we found him in July 2013 he was in a pathetic condition. He had no shelter for him at night, and was being used as a prop to beg from dawn until dusk from tourists visiting the sites of India.
“He hasn't been fed properly and tourists started giving him sweet food items and because he was in a state of hunger and exhaustion he began eating plastic and paper.
“His nails are severely overgrown, he has abscesses and wounds because of the shackles and continually walking on a tarmac road has led to his foot pad overgrowing.”
Once a court order was finally issued, a team led by Wildlife SOS founder Kartick Satyanarayan carried out two days of surveillance – fearing Raju's owner - or Mahout - could flee at the 11th hour.
Satyanarayan explained: “As we watched we quickly realised we had to act as quickly as possible as his situation was so desperate and the cruelty so extreme so we decided to move the rescue forward by a day.
“The chains around his legs had spikes which were cutting into his flesh – and each time he moved pus would ooze out of wounds. Pain and brutality were all he knew. His cruel handler even tore out the hair from his tail to sell as good luck charms. The exploitation and abuse just had to stop.”
On Thursday as the mercy mission began and Raju's owner, or Mahout tried to prevent his rescue.
Satyanarayan said: “He began to shout commands to terrify Raju – and try to provoke him. “It created an incredibly dangerous situation as a bull elephant could snap a human like a tooth pick if he becomes afraid or angry.
“When that failed he then put a series of chains around his legs in an attempt to prevent us removing him – so viciously tight that were cutting into his legs.
“But we stood our ground and refused to back down – and as we did so, tears began to roll down Raju's face. Some no doubt were due due to the pain being inflicted by the chains, but he also seemed to sense that change was coming. It was as if he felt hope for the first time in a very long time.
“We knew it was now or never so we made the drastic decision to move his transportation truck closer and then walk him 200 yards. Every step would have been agony, but we had to take him, or he could have vanished forever. We decided we'd remove the shackles once we'd got him to safety.”
Incredibly, Raju calmly complied, despite every step causing searing agony.
“It as as if he knew we wanted to help him,” Satyanarayan said.
Once he was loaded, and given additional sedation, a convoy then escorted the five and a half tonne elephant, 350 miles on the back of an open topped lorry to the charity's Elephant Conservation and Care Centre at Mathura.
“Incredibly he stepped out of his truck and took his first step to freedom at one minute past midnight on July 4th, which felt so extraordinarily fitting,” Satyanarayan said.
“The other elephants in the sanctuary awoke from their sleep as we pulled in and came to have a look – it was an extraordinary moment.”
Raju was then fed bananas, banana leaves, mangoes and some bread and biscuits and given water before the charity's head wildlife vet Dr Yaduraj Khadpekar began the painstaking process of removing his shackles.
Satyanarayan said: “It took him and two handlers 45 minutes to liberate him as they'd been wound round his legs to prevent their removal and to cause pain if anyone tried to take them off.
“Four Mahouts we have specially trained in positive reinforcement gently persuaded him to sit, so finally we were able to remove them. And we fed him bananas and water melon as they painstakingly worked to give him his liberty again without causing him any more pain.
“We all had tears in our eyes as the last rope which held the final spike was cut and Raju took his first steps of freedom.
“The entire team were exhausted, but incredibly elated as he has suffered such unthinkable abuse and trauma for so, so long. He'd been beaten so badly, his spirit is broken.
“The cruel spikes that caused him so much pain and fear which was used to control him will now go into a museum to illustrate and raise awareness of a vile trade that no-one should support.”
Over the weekend, Raju received emergency medical attention to his wounds as well as a bath as he begins to learn what human kindness is.
“It will be a long rehabilitation process, but we will teach him that humans don't mean pain and brutality, but it's going to take time,” Satyanarayan said.
“When he is ready he will join initially two companion elephants called Rajesh and Bhola, who once also suffered unthinkable cruelty. Bhola, who was blind, was run over by a truck and and despite terrible spinal and trunk injuries, his Mahout forced him to try to work until we rescued him from the streets, a living skeleton.
And Rajesh was brutally beaten by his former owners who performed in a circus, leading him to be dangerous until he began to trust again.
Satyanarayan said: "They've both been rehabilitated and once he settles he will learn how to live again by following their example, before he joins the rest of the elephants – including five flirtatious females to live out his days.
“But for the moment he's tasting freedom for the first time in his life and he'll spend the rest of his life in a safe compound living out his days in dignity, free from suffering and pain.”
Now the charity has launched a campaign to raise £10,000 to begin the start of his new life in a new enclosure which will allow him to roam with his adoptive family.
“Now the British public can help him live out a dignified life in peace with even a small donation,” said Satyanarayan, whose charity is dependent on public donations.
“All he's known from human beings is pain and suffering – now we're asking to help us help him live out their days, with grass under his feet – free from humilation and pain.”
Learn more and donate here, or cheques or postal orders can be sent to: Wildlife SOS, 483 Green Lanes, London, N13 4BS
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