The story of Raju, the elephant who cried when he was freed after 50 years in shackles, touched millions around the world just two months ago. Now, in a cruel twist of fate, Raju might be sent back to a life in chains.
Raju was captured as a baby and bought and sold over his 50-year lifespan, all while being forced to work as a begging elephant and shackled in spikes chains. Wildlife SOS, an animal protection group, rescued Raju from his abusive owner and mahout -- an individual who rides elephants -- during a July mission in the Uttar Pradesh region of India.
"The vet and our team came with fruits and just started speaking softly to him and to reassure him that we were there to help, and it was at that time that tears flooded down his face," Nikki Sharp, the executive director of Wildlife SOS-USA, told The Huffington Post, adding: "They've done a lot of elephant rescues and the fact [that] the tears were just coming down ... he was weeping. It was an emotional moment and everyone was more motivated to get him on the truck and to safety."
Raju's story seemed to have a happy ending when he was taken to the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura. But now that happiness is threatened.
Wildlife SOS revealed on Aug. 27 that Raju's owner is attempting to get him back.
Raju has suffered 50 years of unimaginable cruelty. Two months ago, the world worked together to set him free. But it turns out his awful past is not fully behind him. The cruel person who denied him even the most basic comforts has just filed papers in court to get him back. Be his voice and stand up for his freedom!
“His owner is arguing that Raju is his property, which must be returned to him for his use," Wildlife SOS founder Kartick Satyanarayan said, per The Hindu. "The thought of him being forced back to a life in chains is just horrific ... We are now anxiously awaiting our first court hearing in Allahabad, next week on September 4 to find out the fate of Raju. We want this case to set a precedent across India to change the way elephants are treated and abusers are punished and justice prevails for these magnificent creatures that suffer in silence."
Elephants are protected by law in India, the Telegraph notes, but many are still kept illegally and abused by mahouts.
In an FAQ page, the group identifies Raju's previous owner as a Mr. Shahid, who was charged with illegal custody of Raju last year. This case is still in the court systems, but if found guilty Shahid faces three to seven years in jail. Right now, Wildlife SOS has legal custody of Raju thanks to a court order. While Shadid claims Raju is his property, the group contends Shahid was never Raju's legal owner and has no legal documents to substantiate his claim.
Wildlife SOS launched a petition on Change.org titled "Keep Raju Free," which already has over 94,000 signatures. The group also set up an elephant legal defense fund to collect money to help fight for Raju.
"We are planning to fight tooth and nail through the courts to ensure this can’t happen. We will take it to the highest legal levels and to the Supreme Court of India if required," Satyanarayan said, per the Daily Mail. "We will argue that he broke wildlife protection laws and animal cruelty laws through his treatment of Raju, and that [Raju] was being kept illegally after being trafficked from handler to handler from being poached as a calf."
In August, Wildlife SOS reported that Raju has been doing wonderfully at the refuge. He loves to play in the water, he is spoiled with buckets of foods, and he has even made some female friends.