Raja - A spirited life
As animal lovers how many of us have longed for that Dr Dolittle moment when we discover that we are able to talk to the animals; to understand and empathize and to feel that same emotion being returned? We often feel it with our pets but being close to a wild animal and experiencing that sense of connection is truly humbling and, when it comes in the shape of a gregarious, ten-month old Asian elephant calf, it’s hard not to feel like a child at Christmas.
After spending three days in the state of Odisha in east India witnessing first-hand the struggle for survival faced by Asia’s wild elephants, for Elephant Family’s Vicky Flynn, meeting Raja lifted her heart.
“Here was a spirited little elephant calf that wanted to be part of everything,” she recalls. “He was literally sticking his trunk in wherever he could; interfering with the bathing of the older orphans, pushing the keepers for attention, trotting to keep up on a walk, poking at a termite hill – all the time trying to master the 40,000 muscles in his little trunk – and even shaking and successfully opening the gate to get at his milk feed.”
Elephants are hungry creatures and for a baby like Raja, round the clock feeds are vital to build condition and strength. His two hourly feeds ensured that head keeper Anil Das was not only kept busy but firmly established as the centre of Raja’s new universe.
“If Anil was out of sight for even a minute the plaintive cries from the little calf were enough to melt the hardest heart,” adds Vicky. “Sweeter still was the calf’s reaction when he saw Anil again … no love story could recreate that deep devotion as Raja ran to Anil’s side for reassurance.”
“Heart-warming though the scenes were, we couldn’t help wonder why Raja had found himself orphaned.”
His story, it turned out, was the story of many wild herds across Asia. Elephants are migratory animals that follow the crop cycles and the seasons in search of food and water - sometimes travelling for thousands of miles - and now increasingly, graze on farm crops to supplement the meagre pickings found in their depleted natural forests; at the current rate, 250km2 of forests are being felled every year in India alone.
Raja’s herd were grazing in the paddy fields, enjoying the sweet young rice grasses when local farmers chased the herd from their crops. With irrigation ditches criss-crossing the landscape it’s easy for a small, elephant calf to get trapped in a ditch while the rest of the herd runs for cover. This was Raja’s fate. Alone and frightened he was found by villagers and pulled from the irrigation ditch before forest officers were called for help and advice.
“The herd, usually without exception, return for a lost family member, whether they are tiny or full grown,” explains Biswajit Mohanty who has been working to protect elephants in Odisha for over twenty years. “Elephants have a strong sense of loyalty and of connection and, in Raja’s case, the herd soon returned to claim him.”
Sadly, because he had been man-handled by the villagers, to the herd Raja no longer smelled much like an elephant.
“Twice they came to claim the calf,” says Biswajit. “The forest officers had rubbed Raja in elephant dung to try and disguise the smell of humans, but it didn’t work. And, at only a few months old, Raja was abandoned as the herd moved on. It happens quite often in this area and although we ask people to leave the calves, the human urge to help overrides what is actually the kindest thing and that is to leave them for the herd to reclaim.”
With no other option and his herd long gone, Raja was transferred to the rescue centre and placed in the expert care of head keeper Anil Das who was already caring for three older orphans – Kartick (10) Chandu (8) and Uma (6). Together they made a gentle if fragmented family.
“Meeting the orphans was definitely bitter-sweet,” says Vicky Flynn. “We’d experienced some traumatic human-elephant encounters in the field – including visiting the grave of seven elephants that had been electrocuted by a low-hanging wire - and part of me felt that they were safer in the rescue centre.
“But, elephants have this extraordinary ability to communicate their feelings and, although they were well cared for - and in India animals rescued from the wild are not allowed to be put on public display or used for entertainment - they exuded a sense of sadness that’s difficult to explain. Perhaps it was the trauma of losing their mothers, of losing their herds. In the wild, Asian elephant calves are dependent on their mothers for up to six years with aunts and cousins all helping to bring them up. Elephants are well known for their empathy and for their extraordinary intelligence and strong family bonds. Just like us, they need the comfort and interaction of family and friends.”
Watching the elephants enjoy their afternoon swim in the huge lake while little Raja watched nervously from the side-lines was a great way to end a memorable and privileged visit. The calf only ventured into the shallows when Anil took the first steps, but neither went far, leaving the lake instead to the older orphans.
Some scientists refer to elephants as being semi-aquatic and it was easy to see why as the bigger elephants disappeared into the lake’s mud churned waters and appeared weightless as they dived and wallowed.
Saying goodbye to the orphan herd was hard, but it was time for their afternoon feed and their attention was definitely diverted.
“Returning to the UK to report back to colleagues at Elephant Family, Raja had filled me with a sense of determination and of optimism that, however hard it got, Asia’s elephants – and Odisha’s in particular – would survive as long as we, as a charity, could keep getting funds out to the field to help end conflict and raise awareness of how to best live alongside wild elephants. And, as long as there are people like Anil and Biswajit who are dedicated to being, as Biswajit said himself, ‘the voice for the voiceless’ there will always be hope.”
Two weeks later the team received the devastating news that Raja had died. Too weak, and without the right nourishment he desperately needed, he had succumbed to a fever.
“Hearing the news broke my heart. With previous experience of elephant orphans in Africa, rationally I knew how difficult it is to stabilize small elephant calves - because what they really need is their mother’s milk and the support of their aunts and the wider herd – emotionally, I felt a deep sense of loss. And, a deeper sense of determination that Raja’s short life would serve a purpose: helping to highlight the plight of an endangered species that has for so long been overshadowed by its African counterparts.”
There are estimated to be around 45,000 Asian elephants left in the wild – 10% the number of their African cousins. And, with 20% of the world’s human population living in or near the present range of Asian elephants’ competition for food and space is inevitably leading to conflict – often with fatal consequences. Yet most elephant deaths are preventable. With better education and awareness, along with improved infrastructure planning and by reconnecting and protecting fragmented forests, elephants can survive, and thrive, alongside people - and these are exactly the type of projects that Elephant Family supports.
Images all copyright of Roger Allen