For five days, forest officials and vets tried everything to get Sundar onto the truck. On June 1, they tried to lure the 15-year-old elephant with bananas, jackfruit, pineapples, sugarcane and jaggery. They even covered the ramp with hay to make it easy for the pachyderm to walk into the truck. But Sunder was too clever. He removed all the hay with his feet, stepped on the metallic ramp, found it too hot, refused to walk in, and ignored the fruits.
On June 2, Sunder was again unyielding. The large, excited crowd and the presence of his mahout who didn’t want to let go of him complicated the task. The vets decided to let Sunder rest for two days and keep the mahout’s family away from him.
On June 5, officials finally tranquillised Sunder, put him on the truck, and set forth on a 600-km trip to a rehab centre in Bangalore, acting on the orders of the Supreme Court.
“This would be the longest distance an untrained elephant will be travelling during a transfer,” said M K Rao, Chief Conservator of Forests, Kolhapur division, explaining what they had achieved.
Sunder, though, had already travelled a long and arduous journey earlier, which began in Assam and went through Bihar and Maharashtra.
The elephant was born in Punisi, a village in Assam, in 2000, and his first owner was Moneswar Maran, with whom he stayed for seven years. He was then called ‘Santu’, according to records with the Chief Wildlife Warden, Maharashtra.
In January 2007, Maran sought permission from the Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Guwahati, to move the elephant to Bihar “for engaging in religious functions and processions only, due to the lack of a job for the elephant in Assam”. Records show that Maran did not sell the elephant — which the law prohibits — but “gifted” it to one Ram Naresh Singh of Saran, Bihar.
It was in Bihar that Santu became Sunder. Two months later, Singh “donated” Sunder to Jyotiba temple near Wadi Ratnagiri in Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, through Kolhapur MLA Vinay Kore. So, in March 2007, Sunder embarked on a 1,763-km truck ride from Patna to Sangli, Maharashtra, a journey far longer than the one to Bangalore.
Maharashtra is not a natural habitat for elephants. The mammal is brought here from other states. As a consequence, it doesn’t have too many trained mahouts.
In Kolhapur, Sunder lived in a tin shed near the Jyotiba temple. Every Sunday for eight months in a year, the elephant performed his “duty” — circumambulating the temple for two hours, once around noon and later in the evening. In between, he was kept in an open enclosure where elephants used to be kept “100 years ago”, said Navnath Lade, member of Jyotiba Pujari Utkarsh Samiti. The temple has elephant motifs on its walls, and had long abandoned its tradition of hosting the tuskers, till Sunder came.
In the tin shed, Sunder was taken care of by a mahout called Jameer, who would often get drunk and beat him. The physical abuse, continued…