On July 3, around 6.30 pm, a team of wildlife conservationists gathered near Raju, a 50-year-old makhana (tuskless male elephant) at a large maidan in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. The team, along with the state's forest department, had been tracking Raju for months, watching every move of its mahout. Finally, that night, it had its chance. Raju had been shackled by its owner with a chain of iron spikes binding its legs. The team set about the delicate task of unchaining the elephant. Around 3 am, the last of the spikes came off. And the team witnessed an incredible sight. Tears rolled down the animal’s eyes.
The moment, captured on film, went viral.
Kartick Satyanarayan, who led the rescue operation, explains the tears. “It was captured as a calf and sold in the Sonepur mela (Asia’s largest annual animal fair held in Bihar). It had since seen 27 owners and had been mistreated by all of them.” Satyanarayan, who co-founded Delhi-based NGO Wildlife SOS (www.wildlifesos.org), says they found it had even killed a mahout who mistreated it. “Through its life, it had known only cruelty. It was half the weight of a normal elephant when we found it. Those were tears of joy, not grief, because it had finally got its freedom.”
This isn’t the first time that 39-year-old Satyanarayan, who belongs to Bangalore, has been in the news for rescuing an animal. Soon after he started his NGO in 1995, he launched a scheme to rescue and rehabilitate ‘dancing bears’. “The custom of making bears dance dates back to the Mughal era,” he says. The legend goes that four kalandar (bear charmers) brothers came to India from Persia and established the practice of bear dancing in different parts. They would go to the woods, kill a female sloth bear and take away its cubs to tame them.
“We convinced the kalandar community to opt out of this tough and harsh occupation. In return, we found them alternative means of livelihood, funded their children’s education and enrolled them in our workforce,” Satyanarayan says. For the rescued bears, the NGO set up four centres at Agra, Bannerghata (near Bangalore), Bhopal and in West Bengal.
Once this experiment succeeded, centres for other species impacted by man-animal conflict came up. “We now have a centre for leopards at Junnar near Pune. Leopards are the most adaptive of big felids and usually stray into human habitations,” says Satyanarayan. He recalls a tragic incident. “In 2003, I was called to PVR Saket, a multiplex in South Delhi, following frantic appeals that a bagh (tiger) had been spotted.” The team found that the animal was in fact a handsome male leopard cornered in a narrow corridor of a carpenters’ workshop. “A Delhi Zoo veterinarian and I approached it with tranquiliser guns. The vet fired and the dart hit the animal in the thigh.” Startled, the leopard jumped and made for the door at the corridor’s end. “In panic, the policemen standing there emptied their guns. One bullet hit me in the thigh,” says Satyanarayan who was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. It took him a month to recover. “Later, I learnt that the poor leopard had been killed. The episode highlights the ignorance of urban Indians in dealing with wildlife.”
The NGO also has two centres for the Himalayan/Asiatic black bear in Dachigam and Pahalgam in Kashmir and one for the tiger at Bannerghata. And, there are two rescue and rehabilitation centres for elephants at Yamunanagar (Haryana) and Agra — where Raju has been put up.