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Overworked elephant dies in Mumbai

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A woman mourns alongside the body of Bijlee, an elephant who died aged 58, in Mumbai, on June 30, 2013. Bijlee's plight illustrated the mistreatment of the animals as street performers. (AFP)

An overworked and overweight elephant in Mumbai whose plight illustrated the mistreatment of the animals as street performers has died after fighting for her life for weeks, vets said.

The 58-year-old named Bijlee died on Sunday from complications relating to old age, degeneration of leg muscles and arthritis, J.C. Khanna, secretary of the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told AFP.

"She died because of ignorance, lack of awareness and ill-treatment," said Khanna, a vet and consultant who was part of a team trying to save the elephant.

Bijlee, whose name means lightning, had sparked anguish amongst animal activists and Bollywood stars after she was found lying in pain earlier this month in the city's northeastern suburbs, unable to walk after decades of neglect and overwork.

Local newspaper reports said she was used by her owners to beg on the streets and entertain at weddings without a break for more than 50 years.

"Her condition deteriorated quickly over the past three days, when she could no longer stand, even with the support of cranes," the Mumbai Mirror newspaper said on Monday.

The newspaper said the mahout (elephant keeper) Rajaram was inconsolable and sat beside her after her death.

The animals are a common sight on the streets of many Indian cities, although their movements are officially restricted in Mumbai, the country's largest city.

Permission to use elephants in the city is usually granted only for religious occasions.

Vets say Bijlee's owners have been feeding her junk food for years, including popular Indian snacks such as the "vada pav", a spicy potato pattie in a bun.

Asian elephants usually live off grass, plant matter and tree bark.

Animal activist Nilesh Bhanage, founder of the Plants and Animals Welfare Society, told the Times of India newspaper: "Forest officials have to stop any further cruelty to elephants. We don't want any more 'Bijlees' to happen."

India is home to around 25,000 wild Asian elephants but their numbers are dwindling mainly due to poaching and the destruction of their habitats by humans.