Sunder – The Story of One Indian Elephant's Fight for Freedom

Sunder the elephant became well-known after footage of him being abused was leaked online. Vegan Life looks at how Sunder got his freedom.


sunder indian elephant abused freedom


Living alone in filthy, cramped conditions, and trapped by the spiked chain around his leg, young Indian elephant Sunder’s life was far from luxurious. Without any proper knowledge of how to care for Sunder, his handlers would often brutally abuse him.  He was never able to roam, bathe or socialise-any of the activities that come naturally to this species.


Traditionally in India, captive elephants are treated inhumanly and beaten when they don’t respond to tricks by their mahouts [those who work with and ride the animals]. It’s reported over 3,500 elephants are currently living in captivity in India. These highly social and intelligent animals, who in the wild spend approximately 18 hours a day walking, feeding, bathing in waterholes and interacting with other elephants in close-knit family groups are in captivity. They are sentenced to a lifetime of confinement, loneliness and abuse.


After footage of Sunder’s cruelty appeared online, Maharashtra minister of forests Dr. Patangrao Kadam and the Project Elephant division of the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued orders for Sunder’s release to a sanctuary. There he would get the care that he so desperately needed. However, despite pressure from PETA and other activists, the orders were not carried out, and instead, Sunder was hidden in an old poultry shed, where he remained chained.


sunder indian elephant abused freedom


But across the world people were witnessing the footage of Sunder and taking action. They began writing to authorities demanding he was placed into a sanctuary where he could be provided with the care he so longingly and desperately needed. Petitions were started across social media where people worked endlessly to find a solution for Sunder. As a result of this, PETA India filed a petition with the Bombay High Court asking the Maharashtra Forest Department to implement its previous order and finally send Sunder to a sanctuary.


Finally, in 2014, after a 21-month-long campaign to free Sunder, he was finally going to receive the care and attention that he required and his journey to a new sanctuary began. According to PETA India CEO Poorva Joshipura: “The journey to get Sunder from Maharashtra state to Karnataka state was incredibly long, it took around 10 hours. We were met with his abusers as we attempted to leave, they were shouting the wrong commands at Sunder to agitate him – they wanted to keep Sunder in Kolhapur – where he had been abused for years.”


Eventually, Sunder would be spending his days with a herd of elephants in a spacious 122-acre forested area with ponds and streams. Fortunately, he will never have to his life in chains again. Whilst receiving treatment for a serious leg wound – which he sustained after spending his days shackled – he is being held in a separate area of the park and loosely restrained while he learns to trust his new caretakers. Poorva says: “Sunder is an exceptional learner, this is the first time he has been given treats for obeying commands and he’s responding well. He can see that the caretakers are not carrying weapons and he has no experience with the caretakers from the park trying to harm him.”


With the help of PETA India, the Bannerghatta Biological Park [BBP] – Sunder’s new home –has become India’s first free-roaming animal sanctuary. PETA consultant and elephant expert Carol Buckley designed a solar electric fence and a state-of-the-art emergency corral for Sunder and his 14 elephant friends. Carol says: “The fence will provide Sunder and his friends with the ability to roam around the 49.5 hectare sanctuary, the herd will be able to bathe in ponds and socialise without being restricted by chains commonly used in India for captive elephants.”


It was not known how Sunder would act around other elephants as he hadn’t been around his own kind in a long time. With the freedom to engage in natural behaviour within a large open space that they can call their own, Sunder and his new family are thriving. His wound –a reminder of all the years he spent tortured– has healed and his physical and emotional transformation is truly striking.


sunder indian elephant abused freedom


Poorva says: “We are working with experts to arrange training for mahouts and caregivers in the principles of the Protected Contact system of handling elephants. This keeps both humans and elephants safe by keeping them separated by a sturdy barrier and employ the use of positive reinforcement techniques instead of physical punishment.”


Hoping that BBP will act as a model for elephant sanctuaries throughout Asia, Poorva says: “There is recognised need for more sanctuaries in India –as many elephants remain in dire straits– and the workshops we are holding to help ensure that they are built, they are done so keeping in mind the needs for a Protected Contact System. With BBP, PETA was able to make the dream of freedom a reality for 15 elephants.”



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