Photos: After 50 years in chains, 70-year-old 'Gajraj' finds new home in Mathura

Jun 18, 2017, 18:56 IST | mid-day correspondent

After over 50 years of life in captivity, Gajraj 'The King of Elephants', has been rescued and is now living free at a rehabilitation center in Mathura

Gajraj having his first free dust bath
Gajraj having his first free dust bath. All Pics/Wildlife Sos

The NGO Wildlife SOS has rescued 70-year-old 'Gajraj', an elephant from Aundh in Satara last week, amidst heavy police protection with cooperation from Forest Department. The pachyderm has now arrived safely at his new home - Wildlife SOS Elephant Care and Conservation Center (ECCC) in Mathura. After almost 51 years as a temple elephant, the magnificent tusker now is finally walking into a life of freedom and retirement.

Three days ago, Gajraj's rescue operation took a dramatic turn after Wildlife SOS' mission came dangerously close to being aborted due to violent reactions from locals who pelted stones and attacked the rescue teams.

But all's well that ends well. 

Accompanied by Wildlife SOS expert veterinarians, paramedics, elephant caretakers and rescue team in the Elephant Ambulance -- currently India's only specially designed elephant ambulance, GAJRAJ arrived at the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation & Care Center late afternoon on Saturday.

Gajraj reaches Mathura's rehabilitation centre
Gajraj reaches Mathura's rehabilitation centre

As the ambulance arrived at the center, the majestic tusker first gingerly tested the ground with his trunk before gently placing his foot out of the vehicle after which he walked with no chains for the first time as he walked accompanied by elephant keepers and veterinarians to his new home -- a nice large enclosure where he will live out his days.

Talking about Gajraj's experience at the centre, Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder Wildlife SOS, said, "Within a few short minutes of stepping into the centre, we could see a marked change in the behaviour of the elephant. He immediately took to the new surroundings, gorging on fruits and taking dust baths."

Angry locals watch as Gajraj is boarded onto the special ambulance
Angry locals watch as Gajraj is boarded onto the special ambulance

Talking about the pachyderm's long journey, Wasim Akram, Wildlife SOS Manager - Special Projects, said, "We ensured that Gajraj remained comfortable and hydrated throughout the long journey, making sure he got enough green fodder, refreshing baths and made multiple pit stops for him to rest."

The controversial elephant belonged to the Queen of Aundh and was used in temple processions for over 51 years. With advancing age, the 70-year-old 'Gajraj' was found to be suffering from several medical issues like foot abscess and partial blindness. The magnificent elephant will now be transferred to the lifetime care of Wildlife SOS at their Elephant Care and Conservation Center (ECCC) in Mathura – the first-ever center of its kind.

For over five decades, the Gajraj performed his duties as a temple elephant at Yami Devi temple where local devotees saw him as an icon of worship as he played an important role in festivities and temple processions. His long journey as a temple elephant came to an abrupt end when as he finally retired last week and moved in the Wildlife SOS Elephant Ambulance from Satara to Mathura.

Gajraj rests at his new home in Mathura
Gajraj rests at his new home in Mathura

It should be noted that a PETA campaign first directed media attention to the plight of 'Gajraj'.

After an examination, it was found that 'Gajraj' required medical attention for his toe-nail abscess which could spread to the bone in addition to the hip abscesses while his foot pads suffered severe degeneration. This made him a candidate for geriatric life time care at Wildlife SOS Elephant Center.

The royal family of Aundh gave him a warm farewell. The local villagers, however, became very emotional and hostile as 'Gajraj' was getting ready to leave, as they gathered in large numbers and it took an ugly tuirn when the mob became unruly.

According to the people who were present at the location, with each minute the tension increased and the Wildlife SOS team came under attack with the mob pelting stones at them. A large police force was deployed to ensure protection for the Wildlife SOS rescue team who were there on the request of the Maharashtra Forest Department.

Eventually, the elephant was placed inside the special ambulance that had travelled over 1500 kms from Mathura to Satara.

Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder Wildlife SOS said, "We are grateful to the Forest Department and the police for extending their support to help this elephant. The advancing age of this elephant means he needs a lot of medical care more than anything else. We shall give him the best of care. We appreciate that the Queen of Aundh has handed over the elephant trusting Wildlife SOS."

Geeta Seshamani, co-founder Wildlife SOS, said, "The Wildlife SOS elephant conservation and care center provides a safe sanctuary to elephants requiring long-term medical care and rehabilitation. Gajraj can now live a retired life for the rest of his life; however long his geriatric body can support him."

Dr Yaduraj Khadpekar, senior veterinarian, said, "Being chained for most of each day has had a detrimental effect on Gajraj's health. He is very thin with opacity in his right eye as well as nutritional deficiencies. He also has a serious toenail abscess in his right front foot and left hind foot, as well as severe wear and tear of his foot pads, which makes him prone to lameness and foot injuries due to soft tissue exposure."

Her Highness Gayatri Devi Pant Pratinidhi, The Queen of Aundh, said, "I am happy that the elephant is going to the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation Center. I am confident that he is in safe hands."

Deputy Conservator of Forests, Anil Ajankar said "It took several days to convince the irate public to not prevent shifting of the elephant. I'm relieved this has ended well and the elephant is safe."

Wasim Akram, Wildlife SOS coordinator, said "Our entire team was in a lot of danger as we were attacked by stones but police presence helped us move the elephant and our team to safety."

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