On January 17, a sanctuary near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh appeared in the news for its stylish pachyderms in pyjamas. Dressed in colourful jumpers and jackets, rescued elephants of the Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre had found a novel way to stay warm this winter, courtesy some enterprising villagers who appeared to have spent monthsknitting the clothes that appeared in the photo-op.
Phoolkali, Laxmi and Suzy, the plus-sized models chosen for the shoot, were photographed by the British photo-journalist Roger Allen. Allen, whose photography projects in the past have touched upon the issue of animal welfare, asked that the jumpers match the larger-than-life personalities of his subjects, according to members of Wildlife SOS.
Simply because they are thick-skinned does not mean that elephants do not feel cold. According to Baiju Raj, director of conservation projects at Wildlife SOS, peak winter affects everyone, from humans to rescued animals. “These are old elephants who have been abused, seen cruelty and hardships and need maximum care,” he said. “Even when the temperatures dip to 10 degrees Celsius, they feel cold. We have felt them shiver on nights like these,” he maintained.
Elephants are also prone to pneumonia and experiencing arthritic pain in cold and damp weather, Wildlife SOS said.
“It is important to keep our elephants protected from the bitter cold during this extreme winter, as they are weak and vulnerable having suffered so much abuse making them susceptible to various ailments,” said Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and CEO of the organisation. “The cold also aggravates their arthritis, which is a common issue that our rescued elephants have to deal with.”
After Allen’s photo shoot, several news websites picked up the story about the elephants in adorable jumpers and the village that cared deeply for its rescued wildlife. The comely photographs of Phoolkali, Laxmi and Suzy were shared widely on social media as well. The outfits were made by women who belong to a former poaching community from North India, as part of an initiative taken by Wildlife SOS as a part of their Kalandar Rehabilitation Programme.
As experienced shoppers in North India will testify, colourful, crochet-knit jumpers are attractive, but do little too keep one warm. As the project is in its initial stages, the Wildlife SOS team is still experimenting with different designs and fabrics. So while the elephants were happy to wear their fanciest clothes, they usually prefer to dress in more practical winter clothing, comprising blankets tied to their backs and bellies. “The pyjamas made some elephants uncomfortable, they kicked them off after the shoot,” Raj said.
On even colder evenings, the rescue workers kit their pachyderms out with an extra layer of tarpaulin, which acts as a smart windcheater and protects the elephants from rain and dew.
This season’s winter apparel, Raj said, was inspired by a muted palette. “We actually want their covers to be more dark, almost like a camouflage,” he said, adding that dressing the elephants was something Wildlife SOS had undertaken for the first time this year. “We want to come up with a solution to keep these animals warm, that’s all.”
Currently, there is one dedicated tailor who devotes his time to sewing the elephants’ new clothes. Each costume takes five days to complete and costs approximately Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000.
The project, as Raj clarified, was still in research stage. So far, one complete ensemble had been tested on Suzy, who is a blind and toothless former circus star. Suzy is also the oldest elephant at the sanctuary and is particular about her likes and dislikes.
Between the Mathura and Haryana sanctuaries, Wildlife SOS currently looks after 23 rescued elephants. The organisation rescues injured and sick elephants who are forced to work in circuses, slums or crowded cities.
Raju, who was rescued from the streets of Allahabad, was once a begging elephant. Captured as a calf and subjected to decades of neglect and physical abuse, he was finally liberated from his handlers by the Wildlife SOS team in 2014.
Asian elephants are categorised as “wild animals” (protected under Schedule I the Wildlife Protection Act 1972), the animals at the sanctuary have been rescued from years of abuse and need extra care. “These are wounded, malnourished and dehydrated animals forced to work under illegal and deprived conditions who need medical attention and love,” said Raj.