As an organization with decades of experience helping abused and neglected animals, we’ve seen some troubling things over the years. But nothing could have prepared us for the footage we received in January of a young female elephant named Laxmi.
Illegally owned and callously neglected, Laxmi was just 30 years of age — young for an elephant — but looked decades older. She seemed to have a degenerative skeletal or metabolic disorder, probably the result of severe malnourishment. She was shockingly thin, with a sunken temple and protruding ribs. Her bones seemed brittle and she struggled to even stay upright. And yet men with sticks, spears, and bull-hooks were beating her! This was horrific. We mobilized our elephant rescue team faster than we ever have before — rescues can take days, weeks, even months of planning, but we were ready to take our elephant ambulance on the long drive to Laxmi’s rescue within hours. We booked tickets to fly our veterinarians to the scene that night.
The Elephant Who Fell Through the Cracks
This footage had come to us from our network of informants in the Indian state of Bihar. Elephants have been bought and sold there on a large scale for about 50 years, coming from places like Assam, Kerala, Orissa, and West Bengal. Although India’s Wildlife Protection Act prohibits the trade of wild animals, including elephants, Laxmi somehow slipped through the cracks. She was probably poached from the wild as a calf — wrenched from her herd, her mother, and the forest to be sold on the black market. Over the years, Laxmi was no doubt sold repeatedly, likely from one neglectful owner to another. Every sale was in violation of the law. We believe Laxmi was smuggled through the country under the cover of a traveling circus — a common way unscrupulous men traffic illegally owned elephants to escape public and legal scrutiny. Knowing exactly how Laxmi got from a defenseless calf in the forest to a state of extreme malnourishment in chains is critical if we aim to stop the abuses that come from private ownership of elephants in India. And we do aim to stop it.
Literally the same day we saw the informant’s video and scrambled to get a team out to her rescue, the Forest Service found Laxmi collapsed on the cold stone floor and near death. Her captors must have known they took the beatings too far because they’d fled and abandoned her to die alone. The Forest Service told us Laxmi’s breathing was labored and forced, and that she was trembling violently. We called the local veterinarian in Bihar to offer guidance and advice, and we booked the airline tickets for our own vets.
But it was not to be. Minutes before the flight, on January 16th, poor Laxmi took her final breath and was done.
Justice for Laxmi
We are heartbroken. We are angry. And we are determined to do something to stop horrors like these from happening in India. It begins with bringing these men — Laxmi’s “owners” as well as her cruel and inept “caretakers” — to justice. They must be prosecuted and incarcerated, and it must be well publicized. This is not about vengeance, nor is it an emotional rush toward punishment; in the past, our organization has recommended job training and education in place of arrest and incarceration for those who make their living exploiting animals.
But Laxmi’s story is not one of those times. The treatment that eventually killed her had gone on for decades. And though India has some of the strongest wildlife-protection legislation in the world, the laws never afforded any protection for her. Even after her death, so gruesome and so unnecessary, the laws have failed to prosecute the guilty parties; no arrests have been made although there are government witnesses to her death. An arrest would show that our laws have meaning.
But this goes even beyond justice for Laxmi. Perhaps the saddest side of this story is that Laxmi’s situation was not unusual — it represents the norm for captive elephants. They need our voices. They need a legal precedent. They need us to send a very clear message to would-be smugglers and traffickers: that there are real consequences for trying to make a quick buck off the suffering of innocent animals. And beyond even that, our long-term goal is to end the private-ownership system that led to Laxmi’s poaching, her imprisonment, and her early demise. Please raise your voice with us! You can start by signing our petition.
All Image Source: Wildlife SOS