Beijing, July 29: Undeterred by the scorching heat, an eager crowd outside the guardrail encircling the leafy elephant enclosure cranes their necks, hoping to snap photos at the Zhengzhou Zoo in China's Henan province. The lone occupant is a 40-year-old male Asian elephant, Babu.
Weighing four tonnes, Babu is about to eat brunch. Unlike other elephants who are able to put food in their mouth by merely wielding their trunk, Babu has to begin by bending both its forelegs slightly forward, placing food between its bizarrely short trunk and right foreleg, and then slowly lifting the food up high by gently curling its trunk before putting the food into his mouth, reports Xinhua news agency.
"A part of the elephant's trunk is missing!" exclaimed a kid. After living in Zhengzhou for 30 years, Babu has become a superstar. Babu injured his trunk, 22 years ago when he was trying to impress his female neighbour by fiddling with the iron fence. The accident resulted in more than 40 centimetres of his trunk being amputated.
Yin Lei, who is in charge of the elephant enclosure in the zoo, said the trunk was very important for elephants. "It's the animal's most versatile and indispensable tool, used for eating, communicating, touching, grasping, bathing and fending off attackers," Yin said.
The zoo's staff were gravely concerned about how Babu was going to adjust to life after losing one-third of his trunk. "He became very ill-tempered, cranky even and suffered from a loss of appetite," recalled Guo Xunji, a former elephant feeder.
To help Babu, Guo staked out the elephant's enclosure and stuffed bananas and apples straight into its mouth when it was hungry, reported Xinhua. After Babu's recovery, Guo started experimenting with new ways to help the elephant better feed itself.
Guo placed slices of fruit on a stool to shorten the distance between its mouth and food, but several failed attempts at grabbing the fruit with his amputated trunk discouraged Babu, leading him to eventually give up and walk away.
Despite the setbacks, Guo kept trying. When the animal was in good spirits, Guo would scatter fruit in front of Babu's forelegs and carefully guide the animal to use one of its forelegs to assist the trunk in picking up the fruit and putting it into his mouth.
"When we first started, Babu would fail eight out of 10 tries. Some visitors even got teary-eyed after witnessing the hardship the poor animal had to endure," said Guo.
After six months' intensive training, Babu started to get the hang of it. Babu also has trouble drinking enough water using its shortened trunk. Now, he is used to opening his mouth wide and letting water flow in from the pipe held by zoo staff.
With his feeding problem sorted out, the zoo started to place Babu's psychological health on the front burner, especially after the premature death of his mate, with whom he had been with for nine years.
The arrival of two young Asian elephants provided the ageing Babu with a precious companionship that humans were unable to provide. "Babu may seem a little aloof when he is outside, but he is a real talker when he meets the other two youngsters inside the room," said Yin. "Sometimes he even plays with the visitors by spraying water from his trunk."
As Babu's digestive ability continues to deteriorate, the zoo has started giving him dietary privileges. The elephant now consumes 15 steamed buns rich in bone powder, 15 kg of carrots and 100 kg of grass on a daily basis, according to Yin. "With the excellent care we provide, I sincerely hope that our old friend will live the rest of his life peacefully in our park," said Chen Jing, a zoo official.