Elephants Return to the Forest

For almost 4,000 years, people in Thailand and other Asian nations have removed elephants from the forest for use in war, as beasts of burden, and for religious purposes. But as habitats shrink and economies change, the elephant's cultural role is diminishing—and the problems of elephant management are growing. One possible solution is to return the elephants to the forest. "Unlike, say, chimpanzees or orangutans or many carnivores, you have 16,000 [Asian elephants] that are eminently suitable for release [back to the wild]," writes Thai elephant expert Richard Lair in Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity, a report for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. "It's almost like having 16,000 white rhino or snow leopards or okapi, just sitting in people's back yards in Asia."

Partial map of Thailand and Laos.
Northern Thailand's Doi Pha Muang Wildlife Sanctuary took in the first reintroduced elephants in the country.AMNH
The Elephant (and Thailand) Advantage

Over the centuries, there has been a continuous exchange between Asia's domesticated and wild elephant populations. Unlike most zoo-raised or domestic species, Asian elephants have never been selectively bred, so they remain genetically wild. "Legally, biologically, genetically, behaviorally, the Asian elephant is a wild animal, clear and simple," says Lair. "Probably three out of four [domesticated] elephants on this continent are taken out at night to feed in the jungle, either with a chain dragging behind the leg, or chained to a tree," he explains. "Almost all of them are able to feed on a wide variety of native plant species. They're very adept going up and down hills. They know how to find water. They're attuned to nature."

Therefore, Asian elephant reintroduction has advantages over other reintroduction projects in which captive animals must be taught how to live in the wild. "These elephants seem to go back straight away and understand immediately what is their food and where it is and how to eat it," says Robert Mather, the country representative for the World Wildlife Fund in Thailand.

Thailand is also an ideal place for reintroduction. Unlike many Asian countries, Thailand has large areas of suitable wild habitat emptied of elephants by ivory poachers or hunters. One such region is the Doi Pha Muang Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in northern Thailand, the sanctuary is large enough to support around 20 elephants. It has the abundant water and varied vegetation a healthy herd needs. In 1997, Queen Sikrit of Thailand released three elephants into the sanctuary to inaugurate the country's first elephant reintroduction effort. The goal of the project is not only to reintroduce elephants into the wild but also to increase the number of areas that can support elephant populations and reduce the various threats to the species, which include habitat loss, unemployment, and neglect.

Ready for Release?

Near Doi Pha Muang is an elephant hospital and holding area. Here, abandoned and injured elephants are sheltered, given medical treatment, and observed for several months to see what future best suits them. Depending on an animal's temperament, age, and condition, it might work in the tourism industry, go to a breeding center, or be released back into the forest.

Ideal candidates for reintroduction are former logging elephants that are already accustomed to living and finding food in the forest. Once an elephant is deemed suitable, it undergoes a thorough physical exam, with blood samples drawn for DNA fingerprinting.

A person standing near two adult elephants and one juvenile.
Two female adults protectively flank the newly introduced member of their group, the two-year-old male Plai Song. As Plai Song's behavior became more aggressive and "wild," researchers became less able to approach the herd safely.AMNH

When establishing a new population, the first to be released are older females, as they usually lead wild herds. Next to be released are females with young calves, which help create strong social bonds and develop a natural age and class structure. Next in line are adult males, in order to establish a breeding pool. Last come adolescent elephants, which are closely watched to determine whether and how they are accepted into the now-established herd. "You have to think very carefully indeed about the nature of the elephants you're going to release," explains Lair. "You've got to select one cow which you think everybody else will accept as the leader. You also have to think about the personalities of the other elephants. Will they form a cohesive unit?"

Before the first elephant release in Thailand, the biggest concern was that nobody could predict the animals' behavior. "What would an elephant do when you release it in the forest [after] it's been fed by humans for 20, 30, 40 years?" asks biologist Michael Steuwe, who has radio-tracked reintroduced elephants for the Smithsonian Institution. Would they panic and disappear into the forest—or head for the rice paddies outside the preserve?

Human behavior is another challenge. "You have to be sure that [the animals will] stay inside the forest," says Mather. "That you're not releasing elephants that are dangerous to humans or other elephants. That they're not going to crop-raid. That you're not releasing elephants into areas where angry farmers will shoot or poison them. And of course, you have to make sure the elephants would be able to fend for themselves."

Older Thais remember how to react when elephants are close by, but many villagers who now live on the outskirts of the sanctuary have to be taught how to recognize aggressive signals, such as flattened ears and pawing the ground. "Elephants will always, always let you know that they still have a stake in the land," warns Steuwe. "They will not disappear; they will fight for it."

Positive Results

To assess the success of the reintroductions, researchers tracked the whereabouts of the first seven elephants released in Doi Pha Muang for two years. The elephants were fitted with collars that transmitted signals up to a weather satellite, and the signals were relayed to the program's Bangkok office.

Additional detailed monitoring took place on the ground. Groups of several rangers translated satellite data onto maps and trekked into the forest to observe the seven animals in the wild. They also followed radio signals from ground transmitters attached to the elephant collars. The rangers took notes on what the elephants ate, where they slept, and how the herd structure was developing. To monitor the elephants, the team also used cameras and radios during the day and infrared scopes at night.

"We can quite happily and confidently say that the elephants really started to fend for themselves from the word 'go,'" reports Mather. "They seemed to know exactly where to find food and what to eat. They had no problem finding water." Even more encouraging, though the released elephants had lived close to humans for decades, they all moved deeper into the forest rather than into nearby agricultural fields. As is customary for wild elephants, the animals stay near their water source in the dry months but move around during the monsoon season to pursue the lush vegetation that springs up.

An elephant wearing a satellite tracking collar
Satellite-tracked collars reveal the whereabouts of reintroduced elephants deep in the Thai forest. Researchers can then follow the animals closely on the ground using radio signals.

Most significantly, the elephants reverted instinctively to wild behavior. The herd took up a recognizable structure. Originally easily approachable by humans, they now call out warning sounds to each other if they smell humans and avoid contact even with their long-time mahouts. "It'll be interesting to see how long it takes before even a mahout, whose whole life has been spent around elephants, feels it's not really safe to get close," says Mather.

Elephant Expansion

Elephant reintroduction has expanded in Thailand after the success of the initial release. More than two dozen domesticated elephants have been returned to Doi Pha Muang Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaeng Ka Charn and Mae Wa-Mae Wok National Parks, and more wait in the wings. To learn about the latest efforts of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, which was established in 2002, visit the group's blog.

Despite Thailand's successes, many questions remain about the future of elephants in Asia overall. Many other countries don't have any suitable habitat left or have yet to realize that elephants are a valuable resource in need of protection. "Or simply," in Richard Lair's words, "that these are...wonderful creatures that have a right to exist."