MATHURA, India,(REUTERS) - At India's first hospital for elephants, opened last week in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, 49-year old Asha placed her left foreleg on a stool for a doctor to attend to an injury while visitors filmed it all on their mobile phones.
The hospital, with high-tech equipment such as wireless digital X-Ray and ultrasonography, has not only come as a respite to the elephants but is also attracting local and foreign tourists.
Elephants are an important part of India's culture and are prominently displayed in festivals and processions in the south of the country. They are also used as tourist attractions at several forts and palaces in the northern and western regions.
The hospital, inaugurated on Friday (Nov 16) in the Hindu holy town of Mathura, is spread over 1,114 square metres and is designed to treat injured, sick or geriatric elephants.
"I think by building a hospital we are underlining the fact that elephants need welfare measures as much as any other animal," Geeta Seshamani, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, the non-profit behind the hospital, told Reuters TV.
"That captive elephants are not meant to be used and abused but instead have to be given the respect which an animal needs if you are going to be using the animal."
While elephants are revered as a cultural and religious symbol in India, they are also ill-treated by their unschooled mahouts and often fall victim to electrocution, poaching, train accidents and poisoning, animal rights activists say.
India's elephant population fell to 27,312 in 2017 from about 30,000 in 2012, government data shows.
Hundreds of elephants across India, which accounts for more than half of Asia's elephant population, are held in captivity and sharp metal hooks are often used to pinch and coax them into subordination.
The hospital, on the banks of the Yamuna River, is close to an elephant conservation and care centre run by Wildlife SOS that is home to 22 elephants.
Elizabeth Ritson, a tourist from Australia, said she was glad there was now a dedicated hospital for elephants in India.
"Look at them, they are so much happier and when you see the abuse that they have been through, the horrible shackles that were put on their feet and to see them all healed up, it's just really nice," she said.