These extraordinary images show the trust and understanding developed between children and orphaned elephants calves rescued from a forest.
The one-year-old elephants live in Arignar Anna Zoo in Chennai, southern India, where they are cared for by a team of mahouts – a person who works with the animals – and their children.
The youngsters are carried home from school on the elephant’s backs, shower together, play football and even sleep curled up with them.
Zoo staff believe without this friendship and love the orphaned elephants would have di.ed soon after being rescued.
Mahout Rajan, 25, said his four-year-old daughter Lavindya has a special bond with the orphans.
“When she says ‘stop’ the calf obeys her,” he said.
“She is very gentle with them and they will wrap their trunks around her to show their love. Such is the bond the calves will only go to sleep when the children cuddle up and pat their backs.”
This extraordinary emotional bond between child and elephant has been developing over the past year since the zoo took in its first orphan.
Rangers found Sharon wandering alone in the forest and brought her to the zoo. Now the 14-month-old orphan has a fixed routine along with the three other baby elephants Narsima, Urigam, and four-month-old Giri.
Their day starts with a morning bath, and it’s not just the elephants who get a scrub down.
The children join in too, and 14-month-old Urigam can’t resist grabbing the bucket with his trunk and pouring water over gorgeous Lavindya.
Lying in the small pool, the youngsters splash cooling water over the elephants and tickle their tummies with a scrubbing brush.
“Every morning at 7 am they wait at the place where the kids have a bath before going to school,” said Rajan.
“They are so punctual and they adore showering with the children.” Breakfast follows bath time and once again the children are quick to help feed the orphans a mix of milk, coconut water, and glucose.
The mahouts feed the elephants every three hours with their favorite snacks of watermelon, bananas, and sugarcane, to build up their strength.
Fed and washed, the youngsters head off to school but out here in the bush, there is no school bus to collect the students.
Instead, Lavindya, Nandini, 4, Nandgopal, 8, and Anu, 6, hop onto the elephants’ backs and trundle through the scrubland to their village school. The elephants carefully carry their school bags in their trunks.
After school it’s playtime and pigtailed Nandini grabs her football for a kick-around with the gentle giants.
She giggles as Sharon playfully chases her through the village.
I want to spend all day with them but I can’t because I can’t miss school,’ said Nandini.
The zoo is funded by the Indian Government but more money is needed.
P.L. Ananthasamy, director of the zoo said: “We need more funds to provide better care to these calves.
“We also need a separate rehabilitation center for orphaned calves as more and more calves stray away from herds,” he added.
Without the parental care of these families, the calves wouldn’t have survived, so the work they are doing is vital.