An elephant that was kept in chains for 50 years and abused by a drug addict who used the animal beg in India has been freed.
Raju had been beaten and starved since being poached from the wild as a baby and resorted to eating paper and plastic to fill his stomach.
The chains and spikes wrapped around his legs had left him with chronic wounds and arthritis and he was in almost constant pain.
But now he is walking free for the first time after a daring rescue by conservationists with a court order by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department to take the elephant from his abusive owner.
The charity took Raju in the middle of the night on Thursday, supported by police and state officials.
The elephant’s mahout and previous owner tried to stop him being taken by adding more chains and having people block the roads for the rescue lorry.
Video: The moment Raju was set free
Experts worked for hours to gain the elephant’s trust with fruit and encouragement until they could get him into the van that would take him to a sanctuary.
When Raju was being rescued, volunteers said they saw tears rolling down his face.
Pooja Binepal, from Wildlife SOS UK, said: “The team were astounded to see tears roll down his face during the rescue. It was so incredibly emotional for all of us.
“We knew in our hearts he realised he was being freed.
“Elephants are not only majestic, but they are highly intelligent animals, who have been proven to have feelings of grief, so we can only imagine what torture half a century has been like for him.”
Kartick Satyanarayan, the charity’s co-founder, said the mahout tried to make the elephant charge by shouting commands.
He added: “We stood our ground and refused to back down – and as we did so, tears began to roll down Raju's face.
“Some no doubt were due to the pain being inflicted by the chains, but he also seemed to sense that change was coming.
“It was as if he felt hope for the first time in a very long time.”
Almost two days later and 350 miles away in Mathura, the chains were removed after 45 painstaking minutes.
A video showed the moment they cut the painful spikes and chains binding the animal’s legs so he could walk freely for the first time.
Mr Satyanarayan said: “We all had tears in our eyes as the last rope which held the final spike was cut and Raju took his first steps of freedom.”
Other elephants at the Conservation and Care Centre at Mathura came to watch the new arrival.
He is being fed to restore him to a healthy weight and vets are treating his many wounds and abscesses from beatings and chains.
Rescuers at Wildlife SOS believe Raju started life in the wild but was caught as a baby by poachers and sold as a working elephant.
Ms Binepal said: “The poachers either slaughter the mother, or they drive the herd into traps that are small enough only for the babies to fall into. The mother cries for her baby for days after he's been stolen – it is a sickening trade.
“The calves are then tied and beaten until they submit to their owners – their spirits are effectively broken.”
He had almost 30 owners in his life but was found by the charity exactly a year before his rescue, working as a begging elephant on the streets of Allahabad.
His owner, a drug addict, would tell pilgrims at religious sites his elephant could “bless” them in exchange for money.
Raju’s tail was almost bare because the man had been ripping out hairs to sell tourists as a good luck charm for hundreds of rupees.
The elephant was covered in deep wounds from the spikes, as well as the spear used to discipline him and abscesses from his chains.
He was kept chained outside with no shelter or rest, even in the summer heat, and was dangerously underweight.
Raju is now recovering in Wildlife SOS’ elephant sanctuary, where he will live with other rescued animals.
The charity, founded in India in 1995, is appealing for £10,000 of donations to help start the elephant’s new life.
To donate, visit www.wildlifesos.org, or cheques or postal orders can be sent to: Wildlife SOS, 483 Green Lanes, London, N13 4BS.
Video courtesy of: Press People/Wildlife SOS