High drama

Soity Banerjee | Updated on September 05, 2014

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In a rare instance of online ‘slacktivism’ leading to offline victory, 14-year-old Sunder walks free after seven years of abuse

What does it take for an elephant to walk free? Two years, 2,20,000 people and a hashtag (#FreeSunder) that went viral on Facebook and Twitter. In a rare instance of online ‘slacktivism’ leading to offline victory, 14-year-old Sunder escaped seven years of severe abuse, often unleashed by his own mahout, at a temple in Kolhapur and later, in a dark poultry shed in Warananagar nearby. A cause supported by heavyweights like Sir Paul McCartney and Amitabh Bachchan, and spearheaded by the Indian arm of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the elephant’s release last week was nearly as dramatic as the events that led to it.

Following a Supreme Court order, forest officials from Kolhapur along with vets from Kerala arrived at the shed to gain Sunder’s trust and lure him into a specially designed truck to transport him to safety. Four days, several bananas and jackfruits later, the elephant finally breached the trough that had been dug to help him board his ride to the Bannerghatta Biological Park. Almost 700km and 25 hours away; a staggering distance for any untrained animal. But even before the long trudge to the shelter had begun, there was much shouting and hollering. The mahout, who was part of the belligerent faction, even attempted to confuse and excite a partially drugged Sunder with erroneous commands. When that failed, tyres of the truck and the elephant ambulance (meant to bring up the rear on the journey) were promptly deflated. Even when the party hit the road, with police protection to boot, bike-borne men gave them the chase. It was all very cinematic. Think Argo of the beasts.

And yet, Sunder is healing now — his legs mauled by spiked chains, his ears and eyes punctured with a billhook — in a 49.5 hectare enclosure at the forested Park near Bangalore. Relearning his Ps and Qs, he is not yet allowed to befriend and make small elephant talk with any of his 13 pen-mates — 12 of whom, significantly, are female. But it won’t be long before Sunder’s social life takes a happy, historic turn.

The once reclusive teenager has already met and shaken trunks with Van Raj, a giant bull elephant. He also appears to have warmed up to young Shiva, a baby elephant who nearly gave Sunder a cardiac arrest (he hadn’t seen a baby before!) when they first ran into each other. But it is for the ladies that Sunder put his best foot forward. On the PETA site, director of veterinary affairs, Dr Manilal Valliyate, reports he was besotted by the two female elephants who welcomed him to the Elephant Care Centre, “Maybe for the first time, he tried to strike a chord with the ladies near him. He touched and smelled them.”

If all goes well, it won’t be long before Sunder begins to see the Park in the Anekal range, dotted with gurgling streams and ponds, as his green refuge. Far away from chains and darkness, mean mahouts and undercover videos that first stirred a community of world wide webbers to launch a mammoth rescue operation.

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Published on June 13, 2014
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