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The terrible fate of Raja the baby elephant, chained and held hostage by an angry mob: An image that will haunt you and a story that will enrage you

  • In this shocking expose the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother reveals how baby elephant Raja was shockingly mistreated as he was kept captive in Sumatra. Following the deforestation of the land to produce palm oil, elephants have been forced to live with humans, destroying farms, flattening houses and sometimes killing people. Villagers took Raja, and demanded compensation after his family ruined crops in the area.

In all the 30 years I have been working in Asian elephant conservation, I thought I had seen it all – blatant corruption, the rape and total disregard of our beautiful planet and sickening wildlife atrocities, to name but a few. All due to the most dangerous animal of all: homo sapiens.

Not much shocks me any more, but something happened in recent weeks that shook me to the core when the charity Elephant Family and the Ecologist Film Unit set out to document the environmental genocide that is out of control on the island of Sumatra,  Indonesia.

Sumatra is special to me because I spent a lot of time there on expeditions when I was younger. It was a paradise – vast pristine forests, intact coral reefs and abundant wildlife.

All this has changed now and their elephants are the most endangered on the planet. In a single generation, the population has been cut in half, with countless other animals disappearing at breakneck speed.

During the filming, a helpless, emaciated baby male elephant called Raja, who was barely a year old, was found in a village, shackled with heavy chains to a tree. He had been taken hostage by the villagers, who were demanding compensation from the Sumatran  government for the damage his family had done to their crops.

Can you believe that we are now  living in a world where people are actually holding baby elephants to ransom? It is almost unthinkable. But just look at the photographs – look at Raja, as he strains against his chains, waving his little trunk for food and reassurance. He is bellowing in desperation for his mother.

I have heard that sound of distressed calves many times in my life. It never fails to haunt me. But it is his eyes that haunt me more than anything – pleading for help – innocent, desperate and helpless.

A war is being waged across Asia. In the face of relentless deforestation, elephants are being forced out of their natural habitats and they have no choice but to share their living space with humans. As the elephants’ forest home is destroyed, stressed and starving herds flee from the chainsaws straight into villages.

They demolish everything in sight, trampling crops, flattening houses and often killing people. Frankly, you really cannot blame the villagers for taking such drastic steps in the sheer desperation to survive and feed their own families.

Capturing a baby elephant and holding it to ransom is grisly and depressing, but it is reality as humans and elephants fight for space.

People need to know why this is  happening. They need to understand what is driving this madness.

The cause is an innocently named product called palm oil. It’s a constituent part of almost everything that we use and consume – biscuits, margarine, ice cream, soap, shampoo. The list is endless.

And the blame lies firmly with the greed of the large corporations in the East that produce it as a cash crop to fuel the insatiable consumerism of the Western world. 

The thirst for palm oil is apparently unquenchable and its cultivation is  ripping out the last great rainforests.

Although forest destruction and its lethal impact on endangered species are plain to see, palm oil is practically an invisible ingredient, listed under the generic term ‘vegetable oil’.

April, Duta Palma, Sinar Mas and Sime Darby may not be household names, but these are just some of  the companies producing palm oil in Indonesia and selling it on to the  market for about £500 per ton.

L’Occitane, Ferrero, Cadbury, Ginster’s pasties, Clover margarine, Pringles, Kellogg’s, Haribo, Nestlé and Mars are just a few of the more familiar names of those that use palm oil.

All the major supermarkets use palm oil in their own-brand products. Some are better than others in getting palm oil from responsible sources, but the point is that it is everywhere and in everything. It is a silent assassin. Not until 2014 will there be a legal requirement for manufacturers to label palm oil on their products.

And, to make matters worse, the only certification body to monitor the production of so-called ‘sustainable’ palm oil is immensely flawed. Consumer industries are hiding behind a fallacy.

The verdant rainforest of Aceh in North Sumatra is one of the largest left in South-East Asia. It is the only place in the world where elephants, tigers, orang-utans and rhinos all still live together – a real life Jungle Book.

But, right now, the Aceh government is close to adopting a plan that would see hundreds of thousands of hectares of this forest opened up for the cultivation of palm oil. This ironically titled ‘Spatial Plan’ is nothing more than a deforestation plan – an extinction plan, seeking to legitimise the illegal felling that is already happening.

Environmentalists agree that we need to protect about 65 per cent of Aceh’s forest if we are to save its biodiversity. The government plan would allow for only 45 per cent to be protected – that’s a difference of way over a million hectares, or more than a million football pitches. The result would be a death blow for wildlife.

Not only will these iconic species be pushed to extinction, the local communities that rely on this forest will be even more exposed to natural disasters. Devastating landslides have already washed away buildings, including entire schools.

They will become unrelenting and vast areas of land will flood.

Wildlife will be forced into ever greater conflict with people, and elephants like Raja won’t stand a chance.

Sadly for him, it is too late. He died alone, still chained to that tree, though Elephant Family worked tirelessly for a week to negotiate his release.

Already we’ve discovered that another calf, this one just a month old, has been captured and held to ransom by local farmers. Everyone is working around the clock to make sure that this little calf survives. I am doubtful.

But in the grander scheme of things there is hope. If there wasn’t hope, I would have packed up my bags a long time ago.

If we can protect these forests and stop the new plan in Aceh from going ahead, then we’re taking a giant step in the right direction.

Hundreds of supporters have already written to the Aceh government  urging them to stop destroying their forests. But we need help. We need everyone to write.

Increased knowledge of palm oil and compulsory labelling will finally allow shoppers to make informed choices about what they buy. We need to push food manufacturers and retailers to support a transformation of the industry towards genuine sustainable palm oil, and we need to do it quickly.I know for a fact that there is a truly powerful will to save these forests and these animals. 

On July 9 in London, Elephant Family are holding a magnificent masked Animal Ball to raise urgently needed funds that will help us continue our work in Sumatra and across Asia. More than 600 guests are attending in support.

I know I should be excited about the ball. In many ways I am, because of the great opportunity it presents for conservation, but on the night I know that I will not be able to get Raja and others like him out of my mind.

The Asian elephant barely ever makes the headlines but this is one of the greatest wildlife stories of our time. We are close to losing one of the most enigmatic, iconic and ecologically vital species on the planet. The clock is ticking.  

Please help us save Sumatra’s  elephants by contributing to the Raja Fund at

adoptpets: Boycott Palm oil!

Update: In a very sad turn of events,the Duchess of Cornwall’s brother, Mark Shand, who wrote this heartbreaking piece and fought for the conservation of the Asian elephant has passed away after hitting his head from a fall. Shand had attended a fundraising event for his charity Elephant Family in New York during the day, and went to an after party at a nightclub where it is believed he stepped outside to smoke and fell.

In Shand & Raja’s memories please donate if you can to elephantfamily.orgYou can support on FacebookTwitter and sign up to their e-news for all the latest updates on Elephant Family work, events and fundraisers.

Working with local inhabitants and partner NGOs, Elephant Family currently funds 20 projects across Asia with the added aims of preventing human-elephant conflict and improving the welfare of elephants in general. 

The spotlight in recent years has justifiably been on the African elephant which has been mercilessly butchered in order to satisfy the seemingly unquenchable Chinese thirst for ivory. 

But, while there are 700,000 to 800,000 wild elephants left in Africa, only 35,000 or 40,000 remain in 13 countries across Asia. In the past 100 years, 90% of Asian elephants have disappeared, earning them an unwanted spot on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“India alone has lost 90% of its elephants and 95% of its forests in the last 50 or 60 years,” reports Shand. At this pace, the Asian elephant will be wiped out in 30 years. 

Also, in Shand & Raja’s memories boycott products and food that contain palm oil, and urge companies to stop using palm oil that is endangering the lives of the Asian elephant and orangutans.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) is the corporation behind brands such as Mr. Clean, Head & Shoulders, Gillette and Oil of Olay. It has pledged to use only deforestation-free palm oil – as of 2020. Please tell P&G that 2020 is too late – the remaining rainforest will be gone by then!

Call on CEO Alan G. Lafley to commit to an immediate stop to P&G’s use of palm oil.

Pleae sign this petition:

For the scorecard of the 30 biggest companies & their policies regarding palm oil click here:

Shand is pictured below with Tara the elephant he saved from begging on the streets of India. Tara now lives now lives at an animal reserve in India where she lives a life a luxury. “She wakes up eats, sleeps, swims, has a massage, eats, and then goes back to bed—day in, day out…I would swap her life for mine anytime” writes Shand in his book Travels on my Elephant.

"So I haven’t really made any money, but at least I know I’ve lived."—Mark Shand

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The last comment actually just killed me. 





hell yeah

Sounds good.

Im not plugging my charger into a woman

The last comment actually just killed me. 

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