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The elephant has left the room

The story of Sunder from Assam to Maharashtra to Karnataka, from captivity to freedom.

Written by Anjali Lukose | Published:June 8, 2014 12:11 am

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, combined with the stuffiness of the shed and the large crowds visiting the temple, turned Sunder, who was entering his teens, into “an agitated animal”, said Vijay Shelke, deputy conservator of forests, Kolhapur division. After the local press wrote about the ill-treatment, the temple trustees hired 19-year-old Hyder Mahat. But the mahout, who took over in 2011, was also accused of abusing Sunder.

“I didn’t beat him. I only frightened him sometimes. But isn’t that how we teach children manners? After all, Sunder had to be trained. We didn’t always tie him with chains as is alleged, unless he was in musth (a period of sexual urges and aggression) once a year. We fed him well and bathed him every day,” Mahat claimed.

But when PETA’s veterinarians and Sunil Havaldhar, an officer with the Animal Welfare Board of India, visited the temple in June 2012, they were not impressed.

In a criminal complaint filed against Mahat under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act at Kodali in Kolhapur, PETA said, “Sunder was kept chained at the temple for the past six years, and his mahout used a spiked chain and oral administration of tobacco to control him. Sunder was denied adequate food, sufficient water and daily walks. He sustained a severe injury to his right eye as a result of the mahout’s use of an ankus (a sharp metal-tipped weapon) and had injury marks all over his body.”

Following the complaint, the temple trustees relieved Sunder of his Sunday duty. Later, Kore transferred him to a shed at Warananagar, 25 km from Kolhapur. There, for most part of the day, Sunder was tied to metal rings attached to a concrete floor where he was also given a bath. At Warananagar too, PETA says, Sunder was physically abused by Mahat, evident from the injuries on his limbs. But forest officials say PETA exaggerated Sunder’s ordeal. “Elephants rub against chains when in musth. There is no elephant without injuries. Highlighting only the injuries is misrepresentating facts,” said a forest official, who did not wish to be named.

In November 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued an order for Sunder’s release and transfer to a sanctuary. When the order was not executed till 12 months later, PETA filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court. The court ordered Sunder’s release, but Kore appealed against the judgment in the Supreme Court. Finally, the apex court in May ordered the Kolhapur Forest Division to ensure Sunder’s transfer to a rehab centre in Bangalore by June 15.

The deadline looming large and with no credible elephant expert in the state, forest officials roped in vets and professionals in elephant transfer from Kerala.

Sasindra Dev, the vet from Kerala who examined Sunder, advised that the elephant be transferred immediately. “A massive wound is seen on the left hind limb, which occurred as a result of constant tying up with heavy chains. The elephant is under the risk of suffering further injuries from mismanagement at his present location and should be moved to Bangalore on an emergency basis,” he said in his report to the Chief Conservator of Forests (Territorial) Kolhapur.

Following the doctor’s advice, forest officials did everything they could to send Sunder to Bangalore.

Finally on his way there, the elephant, weakened after his tough life, can finally find some cheer.

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