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Animal stories

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ELEPHANT NUMBER TWELVE

She was an old elephant, one of the eight nine captive working elephants of Jaipur. Once she had lived in the forests of Assam, but most of her life she had walked the cities, the jungle a far distant memory. There was no shade canopy in these streets of burning tar, there was no river in which to swim, and her skin, like many of the Jaipur elephants, was rough and warty. The padding of her feet was thick from long years of labour on the hot roads, and there were old cars behind her ears, where the ankush had pierced. There were scars too from the friction of the rough girth which ran beneath her chest and held the saddle in place.

During the winter months she could walk up the road to Amer Fort as many as five times a day, carrying four tourists on her back. She was happy to do whatever was asked. She had been sold by a trader in elephants and had come to Jaipur from UP about four years back. But now she was too old to work. She was over sixty, and, one day, exhausted, she fell down on the ground where she was chained.

It was then that the veterinary team at Help in Suffering animal shelter were called. Normally a lying elephant cannot survive for more than about a day because the body weight is so enormous that the lungs and other vital organs collapse. But Dr Sunil Chawla and Dr Madhulala Valliatte helped by mahout, Moona Khan, administered a dextrose drip and other treatment, dug a great trench, and then pushed the elephant into a standing position. There were sores all over her emaciated body where the rough concrete bed, called a than, had grazed her skin. Perhaps death would have been the kindest deliverance for elephant number twelve.

But she was dignified and proud and she was not ready to die. As if to please the people who were labouring to save her life, she struggled to her feet, and stood swaying obediently. The vets examined her mouth and found that many of her teeth were missing. Perhaps this was why she was so thin – she had not been able to digest the rough food such as sugar can and millet stalks on which the Jaipur elephants survive.

The vets went to work on Elephant Number Twelve. Hungrily she took the special food they offered each day – chapatti, jaggery, lucerne, bananas and other delicacies. Day by day she grew plumper. The wounds healed. Her mahout took her walking every day. She had survived an impossible ordeal – she had been lying for over thirty five hours, and now was healthy once more. I looked into her eye. It seemed full of compassion and understanding for all the people who swarmed around her, never resentful of everything that was missing from her life, grateful only to be loved, holding out her trunk affectionately when we went to visit her.

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On the day of the Elephant Festival, last Saturday, the owners of Elephant Number Twelve again rang the vets at Help in Suffering. They reported that she was repeatedly vomiting and frothing at the mouth. The vets rushed to help her. Friendly and loving as ever, she greeted them with outstretched trunk. But last night Elephant Number Twelve fell down, and one hour later she had died.

We called her elephant Number Twelve because that was the number allotted to her by the authorities. She was just one of a number of captive Jaipur working elephants.

(First published in The Hindustan Times, 10.3.2004)

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