Where Abused Elephants Go to Heal

By Vijay Pandey


Here injured elephants — and their abusers — are given a new lease on life.

In Hindu mythology, Lord Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, is considered the god of wisdom, good luck and success. On his birthday, celebrated in August or September and referred to as Ganesh Chaturthi, huge processions of singing and dancing devotees take place in various Indian cities. Ganesha, the playful elephant-headed god is a symbol of new beginnings in India, and elephants form a big part of these religious festivities.  


On a board titled “Forgotten Past” hang chains and hooks that have been used on the elephants to tame them. 

Source Vijay Pandey

But they suffer, sometimes significant abuse, to become mere showpieces in these festivities and other celebrations, royal functions and circuses — and the elephants’ bodies finally give way. To deep wounds. To arthritis. To broken bones. And serious infections.

There are currently 27,312 elephants in India, according to the 2017 elephant census, conducted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Many of them live and die serving and entertaining humans. During their captivity, elephants are controlled with big hooks that sink into their skin, and iron hobbles and tethering chains, which cause serious damage to their bodies, and souls. 


This past November, in Mathura, a town 112 miles south of Delhi, in the dusty neighborhood of Churmura, the first-ever hospital for ailing elephants was opened by the conservation nonprofit Wildlife SOS India. The facility, built next to an elephant conservation center, is spread over some 12,000 square feet and currently has 20 rescued elephants who are undergoing treatment for various diseases and afflictions. 

Doctors and mahouts (trained elephant keepers) insist that these “tuskers” can’t be left alone in jungles. “They have always been in human company. They won’t be able to live in the wild,” explains senior veterinary officer Dr. Yaduraj Khadpekar. And because each elephant has its own individual handler who is familiar with its behavior, mannerisms and routine, “in most cases we try to rehabilitate the elephant’s handler as well [so they don’t lose their livelihoods],” says Arinita Sandilya, a Wildlife SOS spokesperson. In cases where this isn’t possible, “we do have mahouts who then take charge.”


A handler treats an elephant’s foot with turmeric powder. This is a daily care routine at the hospital.

Source Vijay Pandey

Ailing tuskers have been brought to the Wildlife SOS Elephant Hospital from different parts of the country. Elephants being treated at the hospital, and subsequently rehabilitated at the conservation center, fall between the ages of 10 to 80. Almost all of them have wounds in their feet and deep cracks on their legs and other areas, inflicted by massive chains and pointed knuckles, from their “taming.” One elephant rescued from a temple had developed deep wounds, but they were always concealed with bright cloth to attract foreign tourists. His injuries went unnoticed until he was rescued. Many tourists are shocked when they hear the elephants’ stories, handlers say. 


A handler gives fruit to an elephant as it undergoes treatment for its wounds.

Source Vijay Pandey

Inside the center, these tuskers have formed friendships and families. Some become friendly with one another, some are irked by the presence of others. Peanut and Coconut, two female elephants, are kept in a single enclosure, and they play and bathe together in the nearby Yamuna River. Maya and Phoolkali, two other females, have formed their own “girl group.”