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For 'de-programmed' elephants, return to wild is a slow, costly process

Oct 21. 2012
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By Thanapat Kitjakosol
The Natio

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Two elephant conservation groups are working together to reintroduce domesticated elephants to the wild, releasing 84 of them over the past 10 years under an initiative of Her Majesty the Queen.

The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation (ERF) must shoulder not only the increasingly high cost of purchasing elephants, but also of preparing them for their return to the wild. In the meantime, it focuses on taking good care of the domesticated elephants in its custody, which is only a fraction of the number in the Kingdom that could potentially be released back into their natural habitat. 

ERF secretary-general Siwaporn Thantharanont said that without the conservation efforts of the foundation and the National Elephant Institute (NEI), an estimated 2,500 to 2,800 domesticated elephants could die unnecessarily over the next 30 years.
Due to higher demand for elephants in the tourism business, where the pachyderms are put on show for tourists, plus begging on the streets of Bangkok, an elephant now costs up to Bt1.5 million, compared to Bt300,000 in recent years.
Reorienting a domesticated elephant for life in the wild once cost the ERF Bt300,000 to purchase the animal plus Bt200,000 in nurturing expenses, food and mahouts’ fees. This later rose to Bt1 million: Bt700,000 to buy the elephant plus Bt300,000 in costs. A well-respected monk recently agreed to release two elephants to the wild, but the ERF could not obtain either elephant, because each would have cost between Bt1 million and Bt1.5 million, Siwaporn said. 
Of the country’s approximately 2,800 domesticated elephants, around 1,500 to 1,800 are in the custody of conservation dens in Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Lampang and Surin. The remainder are privately owned, either by individual mahouts, loggers who use them in their work, or zoos and tourist attractions. A 1998 estimate put the number of remaining wild elephants in Thailand at around 2,000.
The ERF now has 67 elephants undergoing reorientation for a return to the wild at three dens. Wild elephants, and those transformed and returned to the jungles, minimise human-made wildfires, because they keep people away [from the jungle], while benefiting ecological systems, and help maintain the natural reproduction of plants by scattering plant seeds in their excrement.
“Wild elephants do not vandalise jungles as most people think. Instead they keep conditions tidy and help with the scattering of plant seeds, which are mixed in their excrement,” Siwaporn said.
So far, the 84 elephants the group has returned to the wild since 1998 have produced only one baby, and as many as 20 of them are thought to have died due to old age. They were released at three locations: the Doi Pha Mueng Wildlife Sanctuary in Lampang, the Sublanka Wildlife Sanctuary in Lop Buri and Phu Phan National Park in Sakhon Nakhon.
But a good example of a success was observed at Phu Phan, where there had been only one wild elephant left. Two reoriented elephants were later let loose to join it in the wild. “The three of them later communicated and got along with one another, until one of the reoriented elephants died. Later, six reoriented elephants were returned to Phu Phan, where all … of them now live together as wild elephants,” he said.
One important sign showing that an elephant has genuinely become wild is when they ignore orders or greetings from the staff or mahouts who occasionally visit them. “The staff and the mahouts show that they are hurt upon seeing that, but it’s a sign that deeply cheers every one of us, because [the elephants] have become fully reformed,” Siwaporn said.
A senior veterinarian at the NEI, Thaweephoke Angkhawanich, said that in order to be selected for reorientation the elephants must be healthy, show a tendency toward behavioural change and have a social behaviour. Reorientation periods vary depending on each elephant’s character and the two of reorientation undertaken. 
Reorientation to “survival” level may take five to 10 years, while “sustainable” reorientation takes longer, Thaweephoke said. Studies show that reoriented domesticated animals retain memories of their mahouts and caregivers, and commands. “It’s the next generation that will be completely wild by birth,” he said. The NEI is currently reorienting 56 elephants, with many of them showing behavioural change. Those showing good signs of reform will be the first to be unchained and allowed to live freely in a vast area designed to simulate jungle conditions.
A worker at a den at Doi Pha Mueng, Chonsaporn Apiwongngarm, said many elephants, mostly younger ones, run away when they see staffers sent to observe their habits and behaviours – which is a good sign of reorientation. A worker at Sublanka, Parichart Jantharakrut, said elephants there between 20 and 30 years old showed changes in their behaviour and that only a few with illnesses were still chained up.

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