As he entered the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura for the first time, the anxious staff of NGO Wildlife SOS were positive that Mohan would be letting off some steam. After all, the 55-year-old pachyderm had endured over 50 years of abuse and starvation as he begged on the streets of Lalganj in UP’s Rae Bareli. Instead, they found a gentle giant with a mild sugarcane addiction. One of the country’s most dramatic rescues of captive elephants had its fairytale ending on Thursday, when Mohan was picked up from Pratapgarh city — where he had been kept under the supervision of the forest department since his rescue in July — and transported by Wildlife SOS to his new home in Mathura.
Repeated attempts by forest department, police and the NGO to rescue the elephant, which began in 2014, were met with threats to the rescue teams and violent local mobs, as well as delays in court proceedings.
In their first attempt to rescue Mohan in early 2014 from Lalganj, a mob had gathered around the Wildlife SOS team as they tried to take the elephant onto their vehicle. Some threatened to damage the vehicle and even chased the driver. The team had to abandon the operation.
In September last year, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court took note of Mohan’s deteriorating health and directed the Pratapgarh district magistrate to shift him to the nearest conservation centre where he could be provided lifelong care. This was contested by the elephant’s owner, Ghulam, who had kept him in captivity for over five years, said an SOS member.
Later, following a district court order that directed the police to rescue Mohan and file a complaint against Ghulam, on July 22, NGO and forest department officials finally managed to rescue the elephant from Lalganj and brought him to Pratapgarh. While an arrest warrant was issued against Ghulam, he is absconding, said a member of Wildlife SOS.
Then last week, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court again directed the Pratapgarh district magistrate to shift Mohan to the nearest conservation centre in Mathura on account of his failing health.
In July, as the elephant finally left Pratapgarh for Mathura, rescue teams once again faced an angry mob. But this time, they managed to whisk the elephant away with the help of the police and forest department.
Around 10 am on Wednesday, Mohan was put into a specially-designed ambulance for his travel to Mathura.
Rhea Lopez, SOS’ elephant campaign manager, who coordinates rescues and identifies captive elephants that need help, said the team was anxious throughout the 27-hour journey.
“Most of the trip was completed at night to avoid the heat. The ambulance had a special hydraulic ramp that was used to lift Mohan into the vehicle. Its in-built shower heads provided regular spurts of water to cool him down, while a team of two vets, two mahouts and rescue experts watched over him.
On the way, villagers handed over fresh crops and fruits to the rescue team for Mohan, who never refused a snack. His trunk emerged at regular intervals to pick up sugarcanes offered by mahouts.
Around 3 pm on Thursday, the team reached the SOS shelter in Mathura. Mohan was taken to his enclosure where he has a pond to bathe in, a pile of soft mud to serve as a bed, fresh fodder and hidden treats for him to find. Twice a day, he will be taken for a walk to a nearby river. “He will have his own space for now, but later, in case he expresses interest in another elephant, we will let him mingle,” Lopez said.
Mohan has a long way to go before he recovers. He has a liver ailment, a worm infestation, corneal opacity in the left eye, and countless abscesses on his body caused by constant poking with sharp objects. He is also severely malnourished and underweight.
As he explored his new enclosure, Dr Yeduraj Khadpekar, senior veterinary officer at Wildlife SOS, said: “Since he is an old elephant, he will take time to recover but we will do our best.”
As the day came to an end, Mohan had another bout of sugarcane craving, which was satisfied immediately by the staff. “Tomorrow, we will take him for a walk near the river. He needs to know that he is finally free,” said Lopez.