If ever a story was compelling us humans to acknowledge as persons not property the other animals with which we share the planet, this one in yesterday’s email from Wildlife SOS is it
Several days ago we lost our dear, dear elephant friend, Lakhi. We cannot express the heaviness of our hearts this week. But we want to celebrate and remember Lakhi’s life, and perhaps the best person to do that is our Elephant Campaign Manager, Rhea Lopez. She was one of the many people who knew and loved Lakhi, and was lucky enough to spend time with her regularly. These are her words:
In February 2015 when Lakhi arrived at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, she was more than 60 years old, a blind, former-begging elephant rescued from the streets of the city of Pune. She seemed timid and nervous – blindness is an added burden for captive elephants that can never really tell where the next blow will come from. The touch of human hands caused her to recoil fearfully, too scared even to investigate new smells or people.
Then Lakhi met Asha. “I’ve never seen two elephants get along so spontaneously”, her mahout Babulai recalls. “They were complete strangers, but from the first day itself, they knew – and we knew – this friendship was going to be something unlike we’d ever seen before.”
With Lakhi under her care, Asha blossomed into the matriarchal role she seemed destined for, standing protectively over Lakhi when she lay down and using an astonishing array of sound cues to call her and comfort her.
We called Lakhi “the Banana Thief” because she made her adoration for the fruit obvious from the day we first met her, sneaking her trunk out toward the smell and gingerly plucking her favourite treats from the bundle and swiftly putting them in her mouth. Her keeper was always happy to oblige, and would call out to her when he approached with a bunch of bananas, breaking them off as he fed her each piece and talked quietly to her. Between her keeper and Asha, Lakhi’s world came alive through conversations, in human voices and elephant rumbles, and through the myriad of new smells and sensations she experienced over her time at the Care Centre.
She discovered the soothing effect of cool water against her skin and the weightlessness of being in the water, the delightful roughness of tree bark against itchy skin, the warm sun on her back, and the coziness of her winter blankets when the temperature dipped. Slowly she learned what kinder hands felt like, allowing her keepers and the vets to run their palms along her trunk as they spoke to her, or guide her gently as they went on long walks. But I think the sensation that gave her the most joy was always that of Asha’s trunk running along her face, touching her lightly our on walks, just to reassure Lakhi that she was there and keeping a watchful eye on her.
When Coco came, Lakhi’s world grew even brighter. Timid and fearful little Coco had been deprived a mother for her entire life., but Lakhi stepped into the role with absolute ease. She never hesitated to seek Coco out when the younger elephant cried, or to stay close by her side out on walks, occasionally enveloping the smaller elephant with her trunk in a safe embrace. As if taking a cue from Asha, Lakhi made sure that Coco always felt safe and loved, and stood protectively over her whenever she lay down for a nap.
Lakhi was an incredible elephant – she was already tall but she held her head up high, which added to the effect. Despite her gaunt frame, she seemed to take over the space she was in with an aura that engulfed you and instantly put you at ease. She was calm, and enjoyed her walks and baths so much that it was incredibly easy to work with her.. New mahouts that joined Wildlife SOS would always start off working with her and the herd, so in a way, she initiated everyone into their lives at the Care Centre. She was the starting point to all of their journeys here, touching and easing us in.
The thing about caring for older elephants is that it is that much harder to treat them: their bodies have been ravaged by cruelty for decades, and they just don’t heal as easily. And somewhere deep inside, you know you don’t have as much time to heal them fully, and need to focus on making sure the few years they have left are the most incredible, peaceful ones they could ever dream of.
With time, Lakhi’s age caught up with her, and she showed signs of slowing down; old injuries got inflamed, and she seemed to prefer resting against the mud beds in her enclosure. Late Saturday evening on the 3rd March, she seemed more weary than usual, and even as her knees buckled under her, Asha and Coco rushed to her side to support her. Asha appeared calm and strong, as if she knew in her own way that this was it – Coco panicked initially, rushing about and running circles around her fallen friend. The team rushed in and the crane was called in to lift Lakhi back to her feet, and even the young elephants seemed uncharacteristically calm. Maybe they knew, maybe they realised it was time to let go and had their chance to say their goodbyes, and wanted to let her pass in peace. Lakhi resisted being lifted, as if she too knew her time had come. She let out her final breath and slumped down against the mud bed, eyes shut, looking completely at peace. As the team moved away, heartbroken, Asha rumbled loudly from where she was standing, but none of the elephants moved. Coco let out a small wail, and from every enclosure elephants responded softly with rumbles, trumpets and huffs – all the way from the bulls to the closer-by females like Phoolkali – in what seemed like an orchestra of calm, reassuring solidarity for their fallen friend.
Lakhi’s burial was simple but poignant. Her keepers adorned her with flowers and lit incense and earthen lamps around her, each taking a moment to touch her one last time, paying their respects through silent prayers and whispered words. Her burial stood testament to how many lives she had touched during her three years at the Rescue Centre. So many journeys had started with this wonderful elephant, and now her journey had come to an end, leaving a huge gap in all our lives.
Lakhi’s post-mortem report revealed her cause of death to be organ deterioration and joint degradation due to her advanced age and her 60 years in captivity. These are things we could never have completely undone, and although her passing was sudden, it must have ben time for her gentle soul to leave the tortured body that had housed it all those years.
Lakhi leaves behind broken hearts around the world, starting here. Asha refused to eat the entire day, refused to budge from the spot on which she last lay. She’s been listless and mournful, albeit quiet – running her trunk through the mud and letting out the most heartbreaking guttural rumbling sounds every few minutes. Every so often, Coco, Peanut, or Suzy will respond to her. Once in a while another elephant will rumble back. Asha’s keeper stands beside her, talking to her and trying in his own way to comfort her. He hand-fed her a bucket of greens last night, which she ate slowly and sadly. He talks to her awhile about Lakhi – about ow beautiful and calm she was, how incredible their friendship was, and how much he missed her too. He tried calling her into the shade, but Asha remained rooted to the spot her friend had passed.
In the evening an incredible storm hit the centre with strong gusts of wind and pouring rain- completely uncharacteristic of this time of the year. Someone said that Lakhi sent the rain to us and all the elephants for a little respite from the incoming summer, to settle the dust and clean the air. The weather is cooler today, and Asha and the other elephants seem calmer, though Asha still lets out the intermittent sigh or rumble.
It will take time for the sadness to lift, and for any semblance of normalcy to return to our lives here. We mourn Lakhi, the kind soul that defined so many of our lives. Coco mourns the mother she was to her. The other elephants mourn their fellow elephant. And Asha, mourns everything that made her life at the Rescue Centre complete – her touch, her smell, her joy and sadness and fear, her very presence, and her unwavering friendship that has so defined Asha’s life here.
We know you are all mourning her too, and we ask that you keeep Lakhi in your thoughts always – but remember her free and happy, surrounded by elephants that were her family.
— Rhea Lopez, Wildlife SOS Campaign Manager
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Petitions to sign
Thomas Cook, Stop Selling Elephant Rides
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This elephant was starved to death – Take Action
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If you can hug, ride, touch or take a photo with an elephant, the chances are that it has gone through some kind of cruel training.
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The Man Who Makes Music For Elephants