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Jumbo mission to save Asian Elephants

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JAIPUR, India (CNN) -- Riding an elephant to the top of the amber fort in India's desert state city Jaipur is a must-do tourist attraction, but city living is not ideal for the animals.

Now domesticated, they work the tourist trade in a city where, in summer, temperatures peak at around 40 degrees Celsius.

In the past, their treatment has been harsh, but UK-based charity Elephant Family has been on a mission to teach owners and riders to treat the elephants better.

Giving both financial aid and education to improve conditions, the man behind their plight is Englishman Mark Shand.

Shand, as well as a team of vets from Indian-based animal welfare charitable trust Help In Suffering (H.I.S.), is working for humane treatment of the Asian Elephant.

The work of the Elephant Family has the support of the state of Rajasthan.

Outside of Jaipur, Asian Elephants face other challenges, including poaching and the destruction their natural habitat as forests are logged.

The city-based elephants continue to work, but slowly conditions and local perceptions are changing.

One hundred privately owned animals now have shade and work fewer hours in the heat of the day.

Shand told CNN that his philosophy is not to stop the animals being used in cultural traditions, including being decorated for festivals and other events, which they have been a part of for hundreds of years.

"You can't stop a tradition that's been going on for years, you can only help it," Shand says.

"Therefore, slowly, with H.I.S. and our funding, the elephant owners have come round to our side and realized that they were not treating their elephants the right way. Now they are right behind us.

"They are putting shade up, they are listening to us. They appreciate the fact that we're getting 24-hour free aid to them as well. We treat any wounds, we give them any food all the time, we subsidize the food, we subsidize the mahouts, the owners."

Shand says that because of his work, trainers no longer use an ankush (elephant hook) to control the animals, which can cause deep wounds to their flesh.

The elephants no longer ride take tourists on the descent from the amber fort.

"Elephants do not like walking downwards, particularly with the weight of people on them," Shand says, adding that the saddles that tourists sit on alone weigh 150 kilograms.

"What we're doing now is developing a lightweight carrier that is only 70 kilograms. Originally there were four people on these elephants. We've said two is enough and we don't let people ride them on the way down."

Shand supports the animals playing elephant polo and other cultural and recreational activities if they are treated properly.

His annual Alternative Elephant Polo event, sponsored by jewelry company Cartier, is held to show the game can be played in a humane way.

"We're trying to set an example. We can't stop these traditions -- they have been here for a long time. We're doing everything slowly, step by step."


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The man behind the elephants' plight is Mark Shand.

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