Rhea, a rescued circus elephant, shares a meal with her sister Sita after being reunited

Rhea, a rescued circus elephant, shares a meal with her sister Sita after being reunited. Photo: Courtesy of Wildlife SOS

She was torn away from her family in her youth. Beaten into submission. Punished regularly and deprived of food and water. Kept in confined spaces, as heavy chains and tight ropes dug painfully into her legs.

This was Rhea's life as a circus elephant in Tamil Nadu, India. For nearly 53 years, Rhea endured unthinkable abuse and pain, as did her sisters, Mia and Sita. But not anymore.

Thanks to the efforts of New Delhi-based Wildlife SOS, Rhea was rescued this week from her unimaginable existence and on Wednesday was reunited with her sisters, who were saved by the same organization last November.

Rhea was transported by elephant ambulance in a five-day journey from Tamil Nadu to the organization’s Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura where she saw Mia and Sita for the first time in several months.

“Elephants are highly intelligent, sentient beings, and form extremely strong bonds with others of their kind,” Geeta Seshamani, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, told the Times of India. “Although Mia, Sita and Rhea were not related by blood, in every other way, they were each other’s family, so it was heart wrenching to have to leave one of these three girls behind, and we had to ensure we returned for her as soon as possible.”

All the required paperwork was in order when Wildlife SOS rescued Mia and Sita in November, but “the last bit of permission” was incomplete for Rhea.

“We had to make one of our most painful decisions, to leave behind their sister, to provide Mia and Sita the immediate veterinary care they needed,” the Wildlife SOS wrote in a blog post. “It broke our hearts to leave Rhea behind, but we always knew we’d come back for her, and fight with all our strength to get her freed too.”

Finally, that day came this week and they are together once again in a friendly elephant sanctuary where they will live out the rest of their lives in happiness.

The Times of India captured the moment when Rhea arrived Wednesday:

The excited anticipation was evident amongst the Wildlife SOS staff and rescue team as the Elephant Ambulance convoy transporting Rhea drove into the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, and everyone watched the reunion of the three elephants with bated breath.

The female elephants, aged between 45 and 53 years, had obviously missed each other terribly, and began greeting each other with gentle squeaking and rumbling sounds even before they were within each other’s reach, after which they entwined their trunks and patted each other comfortingly, as if reassuring themselves that they were finally together again, and this time in a pain-free, safe place!

“It was fantastic to witness natural elephant behavior and hear the vocalizations of the elephants as they greeted each other,” Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, told the Times of India.

“Amidst the squeals of excitement and trunk holding that ensued, we could not help but feel honored to have been part of this reunion. It was overwhelming that we had brought these gentle giants back together as a family.”

h/t The Dodo

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