Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mor Kwan's Elephant Clinic: "Domestication versus unharnessing: The success of reintroduction captive elephant to the wild."

Pang Buangern and Buathong before released into Phupan wild
Elephant Herd: Buakheaw Buangern and Buathong
Domestication versus unharnessing: The success of reintroduction captive elephant to the wild
The Asian elephant in Thailand is now facing extinction. At the beginning of this century there were approximately 100,000 elephants, now there are less than 2,000 surviving in the wild and 3,000 in captivity. Most of captive elephants encounter the sufferings. Many captive elephants are chained for whole life, or forced to stand on a restricted area with their own excrement. Some captive elephants are compelled to roam on city streets that pose for a danger to the elephants as well as pedestrians and traffic. Due to the restrictions and living in the unnatural habitat, it results in their dwindling health both physical problems and psychological problems which may lead to the deaths or disabilities. Furthermore, these problems can indicate poor welfare of captive elephants. Elephant Reintroduction Foundation is assigned to be responsible for the Elephant Reintroduction Project of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in order to offer an alternative way of captive elephant management which returns domestic elephants to the wild. The foundation’s intentions are not only to conserve the elephants but also to balance the forest ecosystem because it is the real home of elephants. The rapid decline in Thailand's forest means that there are very few places where elephants can now live safely. A lot of domesticated elephants released at Doi Pha Muang Wildlife Sanctuary (lampang), Sab Langka Wildlife Sanctuary (Lopburi), Kaeng Ka Charn National Park (Petchburi) and Mae Wa National Park (Lampang). Some of them have completely returned to freedom in the wild, whereas the others have taken rehabilitation program in the nature before being back to the jungle. Futhermore, Phu Phan National Park (Sakolnaorn), is the proficient area for the reintroduction process of the captive elephants.
The last wild elephant in Phu Phan National park
In the past, many herds of wild elephants, more than 50 elephants, had lived in Phu Phan National Park. In 2005, only one elephant, named Pang Bua Kaew, was found in this National Park. Rapid diminishing of wild elephant population was caused by several reasons such as deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and human encroachment. Humans have become the major enemy for elephant’s living space. The forest or the elephant’s habitat had been threatened and converted to cropland, pasturage for livestock, and timber for housing and conveniences. Progress in the habitat poaching by human and urbanization caused the loss of their habitats, was a major factor that impacted food resources and foraging of wild elephants. Some elephants raided into the agricultural region, which consequently caused human-elephant conflict, and resulted in the death of elephants. Pang Bua Kaew, the last wild elephant of Phu Phan National Park, lived alone and was depressed at that time. However, Pang Bua Kaew was highly intelligent, she knew how to avoid a danger. She lived in the edge of a forest near a temple area and never turned back to the areas where her relatives were killed. For this reason, an initiative to reintroduce elephants back to Phu Phan National Park for increasing elephant population was assigned to Her Majesty’s awareness. Pang Bua Ngeun and Pang Bua Thong, the domesticated elephants in Elephant Reintroduction Project, were translocated to Phu Phan National Park. Previously, they had been unsuccessfully released at Kang Krajarn National Park, where they could not get along with wild elephant herds, and often roamed out the wild boundary. At the new place, Phu Phan forest, they had freedom and could live appropriately in their new home, which implied to a successful reintroduction.
Reintroduce elephant to the wild: reality or fantasy?
Many people argue that reintroduction into the wild was not possible. The domesticated elephants born and raised in captivity depended on humans for survival, therefore it was very heavy for them to change their habits and survive in nature. They did not know how to use their trunks to collect food or how to avoid poisonous plants. Moreover, it was too difficult to group with the wild elephants. Surprisingly, Pang Bua Ngeun and Pang Bua Thong could get along with the wild elephant “Pang Bua Kaew”. When Pang Bua Kaew saw Pang Bua Ngeun and Pang Bua Thong, she approached communicated with them by gently touching and smelling with her trunk. Accepting the newcomers of Pang Bua Kaew may be motivated due to a probable reason that she had to live with loneliness and needed society back to her life since the wild elephants are highly social creatures with tightly social relationship, they group together in a herd – a group of two or more elephants, and follow the eldest female which is a leader of a herd called matriarch. In spite of the age similarity about 40 years old and their body size, as well as abundant experiences for living in her original habitat, Pang Bua Kaew was a leader as the self-appointed matriarch of herd. These three elephants spent most of their life together. Pang Bua Ngeun and Pang Bua Thong had learnt a social activity and a proper living in the wild through the behavior of Pang Bua Kaew, including her experiences. Pang Bua Ngeun and Pang Bua Thong can quickly acclimatize to survive in a new environment as well as the wild elephant because of closely approach Pang Bua Kaew in abilities, understanding of environment, and knowledge of food along with where to find them. They could fend for themselves by wild animal instinct within their new habitat. For example, they would display an aggressive signal and vocalized to chase away the invaders like humans. At the present, these elephants stay together in their safety zone habitat without the intervention from human. During the elephant reintroduction at Phu Phan National Park progress, there are a number of advantageous results. Increasing elephant population in Phu Phan forest is a direct effect of this project. The domesticated elephants cut off from shackle also return to their excellent home in wild where they can live happily and may help to recovery their past scar in captivity. What’s more, the elephant is considered to be a keystone species that the species has a great influence on the structure of an ecosystem or functioning of its ecological community. The elephant shapes the ecological structure by having a role in dispersal of numerous plant species, and clearing dense jungle for other wildlife species. The elephants are powerful to reinforce and complete abundant significant components of Phu Phan nature. During the dry season, they dig down to underground water supplies which other animals like deer, monkeys, and birds also use. Sometimes they knock over trees allowing smaller species to feed.
Pang Ploy in Phupan wild
Other successful cases of reintroduction
Pang Ploy, one successful elephant for reintroduction, was released at Phu Phan forest later than one year after Pang Bua Ngeun and Pang Bua Thong returned to the wild. Although she isolated without any contact to other elephants, she could survive in her new home. Life without chain was the best for her to do whatever she desired and to go wherever she wished. Her wild life revealed her great adaptation. Furthermore, the foundation succeeded in reintroducing a young wild-caught orphaned elephant to a wild herd. “Pang Durian” whose mother had been shot was found in a jungle at Kang Krajarn National Park in 1997. She received Her Majesty’s compassion to take care under the Foundation’s responsibility. She was raised by human to recover both physical and mental health for a suitable period before she was released to come back to her birthplace in Kang Krajarn forest. After returning to the wild, she socialized with the wild elephant herd genially and her behaviors almost adapted to those of wild elephant.

Despite an achievement of reintroduce certain elephants, it cannot evidently confirm the success of reintroduction in all domesticated elephants. A degree of releasability individually depends on various conditions e.g. behavior, health, adaptation etc. Nevertheless, the difference between the wild and domesticated elephant is not obviously distinct, both wild and domesticated elephant are the same species “Elephas maximus”. Since the domesticated elephant has never been selectively bred as domestic pets, both genetically and behaviorally remain a wild elephant. The elephant is genetically designed to be naturally wild. The domesticated elephant may appear to be tame, but instinctive compulsions will inevitably drive it to exhibit its inherent wild side often passively and occasionally in a violent manner. Focusing on the elephant conservation and the improvement of elephant’s well being, the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation intends to aid the poor suffering domesticated elephants for returning to their habitat. Even though the reintroduction success is not manifest, this process is an alternative endeavor to alleviate numerous critical problems of the domesticated elephants and to protect them as Thai elephants.

No comments: