What a difference a year makes. When we first met, just before Christmas, Suraj, a 45-year-old Asian elephant, had spent almost half his life in a 12ft-square, barren, dark room – ironic, given that his name means ‘Sunny’ – tethered to a heavy chain.
Despite his emaciation, his broken tail, his missing ear – probably torn off when captured as a calf – his purpose, in a temple in Maharashtra, central India, had been to appear in endless selfies taken by locals and tourists.
He would only leave the room once a year to take part in a religious procession… that is, until he was driven mad by the crowds and caused a stampede in which a person died – so his sentence was to remain chained until he died from starvation, dehydration, and depression.
Happily, Wildlife SOS India stepped in, helped by donations from Mail on Sunday readers – 40,000 of whom shared my original story about the plight of the estimated 600 chained temple elephants – and staged a dramatic 2 am coup on December 21.
Amazingly, despite the 90-strong rescue force, and a baying 200-strong mob who didn’t want their trophy animal to leave, Suraj was asleep when his saviors arrived, unaware his misery was about to end.
Amid the chaos, and the protests of the mahouts employed to ‘care’ for him but who are nasty little men who use fear to control these huge but sensitive animals, Suraj backed calmly onto the waiting vehicle as if he were Frankel, en route to Ascot.
Now, one year on, Suraj is at Wildlife SOS’s Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura, New Delhi. Having been named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential Animals of 2016, he rivals the refuge’s most famous resident, Raju, the elephant filmed in tears when unshackled from chains after more than 50 years.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Years of poor nutrition left Suraj’s digestive system compromised, and he had many wounds. His feet were in a terrible state, with deep cracks across his toenails, swollen footpads, and a twisted right forelimb, causing an abscess between his nails.
Worst of all, he displayed symptoms of psychological trauma. On numerous occasions, he would lie down at night and then find himself in a panic, too weak to stand without the assistance of an on-site crane (support structures have now been built in his enclosure for him to lie against). At weaker times, he was put on an intravenous drip, getting through 20 liters (that’s 40 bags) of fluid a day.
Today, he enjoys a diet of green fodder, fruit, and vegetables. His favorite treat is peanuts, which he is fed as a reward for his co-operation during treatment.
Once he discovered the pool, he became addicted to the sensation of weightlessness. Most of all, though, Suraj loves his walks. After so many years of being chained in a tiny room, it’s fantastic to see him strolling free, foraging, investigating new smells and sounds. He is bravely trying to put the memory of 20 years as a living statue behind him. Problem is, we all know, elephants never forget…
By LIZ JONES FOR MAIL ON SUNDAY