Suparna and her Elephants

This is to salute Suparna Ganguly – friend, environmentalist and animal activist – on her recent award from the President of India for her ‘outstanding work’; a public acknowledgement of her tireless, indomitable focus on the welfare of animals – wild, domesticated, abused, abandoned, disparaged, maligned.Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 8.26.27 PM

Suparna is a dear friend, yet I am the first to admit that I knew very little of what she actually did, especially in the past few decades. I was peripherally aware – from a remove – of her efforts to improve the conditions of animals, (all kinds of animals), but what exactly she did was not a part of the ‘catching up’ that took precedence on the infrequent occasions we met.

Then this award. Her sister announced the news via email, encapsulating the astounding breadth of Suparna’s engagement in all things animal :

  • from creating awareness among the local people through on-the-ground educational & fund-raising activities . . .
  • to fighting acts of cruelty at every stage, like the overloaded bullock cart which she stopped in the middle of a busy Bangalore road, creating a traffic jam & insisting the driver be taken to the police station (all captured by a passing newspaper journalist)
  • to attending the Sonepur Mela in Bihar to see for herself the buying & selling of large animals like camels & elephants, and the rigors of exhibitionism & cruelty they are put to . . .
  • to collecting information about elephants through continuous touring of various states . . .
  • to writing independent & collaborative reports on various animal welfare issues . . .
  • to editing books . . .
  • to giving lectures across the country . . .
  • to walking the corridors of bureaucratic power, educating government officials & ministers, and relentlessly strategizing to bring change to animal welfare laws through discussions, negotiations and, as a last resort, through the courts & the legal system . . .

Not to forget her damn phone, she’s married to it — she never not takes a call. . . it could be an emergency call for a dog, a hit-and-run case, lying injured on a busy street . . . or it could be a call from the lawyer fighting a Supreme Court case about an animal welfare issue in which CUPA is one of the petitioners, she concluded.

When this award was announced and the pictures appeared on my screens and I googled for details; what startled me, personally, was the fact of how little I knew about the life of someone I love yet don’t see regularly; call it geography or circumstance.

The infrequency of our meetings does not diminish our regard for each other; we just pick up where we left off without a pause, and the children are grown and the homes change, as do the animals; and with the years, as do the stories – the blinded tortoise, the dog with firecrackers tied to its tail, the snake in the bathroom tub, the rooster-protest-parade down a high street, the neutering of street dogs, the Doctor Dog programme, Crystal Rogers and her passionate influence on Suparna in the early years, sanctuaries, efforts, petitions, Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC) … to elephants.

Suparna now works tirelessly to address the often desperate condition of India’s captive elephants; whether in private ownership, temples, forest departments, zoos, or circuses. She sent me a couple of photographs, which spoke volumes. A majestic animal, at peace, untethered, a human being at peace, equally free. Side by side. Respectfully.

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This is Aneesha, a disabled 46-year-old female elephant who endured years of hard labour as a logging elephant in Kerala, developing severe arthritis in both forelegs, possibly as a reaction to untreated injuries. She walks slowly and painfully, her forelegs held stiffly. After a year’s sustained effort, WRRC received permission from the Forest Departments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to transfer her into their care. In May 2015, Aneesha arrived at her new home – WRRC’s elephant care facility in Malur, Karnataka.

All across India, the conditions of captive elephants are repetitively similar :

  • Tightly chained in small sheds with concrete floors.Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 9.35.06 AM
  • Forced to live in their own urine and dung.
  • Mercilessly beaten.
  • Made to walk on blazing tarred roads carrying tourists.
  • Allowed only four hours of sleep a day.
  • Forced to perform unnatural actions for public entertainment .
  • Compelled to endure noise and smoke at temple festivals.
  • Kept in isolation and denied the company of their own kind : a great cruelty to animals as highly gregarious as human beings.Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 9.35.16 AM
  • Denied basic veterinary care, succumbing to grievous wounds developed from years of abuse. (All four legs of male elephants in musth, for example, are habitually chained, in positions which allow no movement). Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 9.34.58 AMWounds and scars mark their bodies, some are partially blind and many have rotting feet.

Most captive elephants exhibit stereotypy (repeated movements with no apparent purpose) which is a reaction to severe psychological trauma. And when they can endure it no more, these severely traumatized animals break free and run amok, occasionally killing people in their way.

Witness these photographs, taken recently in the state of Kerala; senseless cruelty which pits captive elephants against savage mobs in the name of cultural practices.

Suparna fights on behalf of these magnificent, dumb, abused creatures, and for every Mariappan, Girija Prasad, Menaka and Aneesha that has found peace under her stewardship, there are endless others that need to rescued with the guarantee that they can live the rest of their lives – if not as freely and naturally as is their right – at least  without fear, without pain.

Anyone can help with a contribution, at the very least, towards the setting up and expansion of WRRC’s two elephant-care facilities in India. The money would go towards a year’s feed and veterinary care for an elephant or one mahout’s salary, or medical insurance, veterinary fees or a bathing pool or solar boundaries … contact wwrc.projects@gmail.com to help.

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