Under the cover of darkness, a team from New Delhi-based Wildlife S.O.S rescued an elephant that had been abused for 50 years in India and transported it 350 miles to an elephant sanctuary where it walked free for the first time on July 4th.
Raju, believed to have been poached from his mother as a baby, was beaten and left bleeding from painful spiked leg shackles by an abusive owner who had the elephant beg for handouts and survive by eating plastic and paper for food.
The owner also tore out hair from Raju's tail to sell as good luck charms, Wildlife S.O.S. founder Kartick Satyanarayan told the U.K. MailOnline.
A year after learning of Raju's plight, Wildlife S.O.S. last week led a team of 10 veterinarians and wildlife officials, 20 forestry department officers and six policemen, and seized the abused elephant from the Uttar Pradesh area of India, after receiving a court order.
"The team [was] astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue," Pooja Binepal, a spokesman for Wildlife S.O.S., told the MailOnline. "It was so incredibly emotional for all of us. We knew in our hearts he realized he was being freed.
"Elephants are not only majestic, but they are highly intelligent animals, who have been proven to have feelings of grief, so we can only imagine what torture half a century has been like for him.
"Until we stepped in he’d never known what it is like to walk free of his shackles–it’s a truly pitiful case. But today he knows what freedom is and he will learn what kindness feels like and what it’s like to not suffer any more."
The owner, reported by The Times of India to be a drug addict, and the elephant's handler attempted to thwart the rescue, blocking the road, shouting commands to Raju to try to provoke the animal into violence, and adding more chains around the animal's legs.
But the rescue team stood its ground, and seized the animal. It was at this point that tears began rolling down Raju’s face. Raju, despite each painful step as the spikes cut into his flesh, calmly climbed into the truck, as if knowing he was being rescued.
Raju was taken to the charity's Elephant Conservation and Care Centre at Mathura where he was able to walk free from cruelty for the first time in 50 years.
"Incredibly he stepped out of his truck and took his first step to freedom at one minute past midnight on July 4th, which felt so extraordinarily fitting," Satyanarayan told MailOnline.
The rescue team had waited until getting the abused elephant to the sanctuary to remove its shackles. Wildlife vet Dr. Yaduraj Khadpekar began doing so immediately.
"It took him [Khadpekar] and two handlers 45 minutes to liberate him as they’d been wound round his legs to prevent their removal and to cause pain if anyone tried to take them off,” Satyanarayan told MailOnline.
"We all had tears in our eyes as the last rope which held the final spike was cut and Raju took his first steps of freedom.
"The entire team [was] exhausted, but incredibly elated as he has suffered such unthinkable abuse and trauma for so, so long. He’d been beaten so badly, his spirit is broken."
Since his arrival, Raju has received medical attention, been given proper baths and food, and is well along in the rehabilitation process. Wildlife S.O.S. has launched a campaign to raise $17,000 to help Raju begin his new life in a new enclosure, which will allow him to roam free with other elephants.
Satyanarayan said Raju is "tasting freedom for the first time in his life, and he’ll spend the rest of his life in a safe compound living out his days in dignity, free from suffering and pain."
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