Why domestic elephants are being rewilded in Asia

In Laos, where wild elephant numbers have plummeted by 90 per cent, the release of captive animals is viewed as a potential solution. 

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Naly, the mahout, finds his young elephant deep in a Laotian forest. He keeps his head bowed and his breathing slow and soft. Two adult members of the herd snort in warning as he steps forward through the undergrowth, but when Naly places a hand on the calf’s dipped forehead it stays within his touch, meeting his human gaze with large, dark eyes.

The calf, called Do Khoun Meuang, is far from a wild animal. Born into captivity in landlocked Laos, once known as the “land of a million elephants” and raised to perform circus tricks for tourists, he spent most of his early life learning to draw pictures and shoot basketballs through hoops with his trunk.

It is an experience shared by increasing numbers of Asia’s 15,000 captive elephants. As mechanisation and logging reforms make elephants less useful to the industries of agriculture and forestry, they end up in tourist camps, living limited and restricted lives, often unable to mate or freely graze at night. Of 3,000 such animals surveyed by World Animal Protection researchers, more than three-quarters were found to be living in “severely cruel” conditions.

Two years ago, however, Do Khoun’s life took a twist. His former owner was on the brink of selling him to a zoo in Dubai when the Laotian government intervened at the last minute. The plane that was to take him to Dubai was stopped on the airport tarmac.

He was later handed to the Laos Elephant Conservation Centre, in the rolling hills of Sayaboury province. This spring, he was “soft released” into a remote, mountainous forest as part of a new rewilding trial.

The project is the brainchild of Sebastien Duffilot, a Frenchman who believes that domestic elephants are key to safeguarding the species. Wild numbers in Laos have plummeted by 90 per cent in the last 30 years, while across Asia-Pacific, deforestation, human-elephant conflict and poaching have squeezed the 40,000 remaining wild elephants into ever-shrinking patches of land.

Gene pools among the forest elephants are consequently becoming dangerously shallow, so as well as promoting better care of those in captivity, Duffilot’s centre is also experimenting with setting Do Khoun and four unrelated adult females free.

It is not a straightforward process, however. And there are two sets of relationships on which any more permanent release depends.

The first requires replicating the close blood-ties that exist in wild herds. “Elephants’ family bonds are strong over many generations, like we are in Spain,” explained Anabel Lopez, the Spanish wildlife biologist in charge of the centre’s breeding programme, when I visited this summer. “The whole family will protect a calf, just like my aunts would protect me”.

“If they like each other then that’s it, and if they don’t, they don’t. They rarely change their minds,” she said of the process of matching unrelated individuals.

The second set of bonds is one that spans not just families, but species. Along with four others – Boun-Soam, Pone, Mone, and Keo – 44-year-old Naly is now employed to help steward the creatures away from the human contact they’ve shared for centuries.

In many ways their mission is an idyllic one. An hour’s drive from the nearest village on a tractor-trailer, down a dusty, riveted track, eventually leads to the forested edge of Nam Phouy National Protected Area.

Here, in a grassy clearing on the curve of a meandering stream, the men wake at dawn into a world filled with dancing yellow butterflies. Smoke rises from a fire under their shelter’s palm-leaved eaves and coffee is made with water boiled in a bamboo stalk.

Their main daily task is to track the movement of the five elephants, whose feet are still loosely tied with chains but who are otherwise free to roam at will. After washing in a small waterfall and pulling on long socks to keep out leeches, they begin searching for the creatures via broken branches and footprints in the earth.

Once they have located the elephants, the mahouts log the herd’s new position on a GPS, check their health, and if necessary lead them away from danger on the forest’s edge or the Thai border. On the journey back they fill their packs with wild mushrooms, fern-like bunches of phak-kud, and asparagus-shaped stems to steam with rice for dinner. Just as the warm, sticky rice is held directly between finger-tips, so the natural world itself feels closer on the jungle’s edge, the human links to it both less wasteful and more fulsome.

Even here, though, life is also still entwined with wider human economies and needs. At night, bawdy jokes and talk of girlfriends abound as the fire burns and music videos are played on mobile phones, and a steady stream of other locals, foragers and mahouts pours out of the trees, lit by fireflies and distant thunderstorms.

On their backs are bulging, sometimes wriggling, bags of food and goods to sell back at the village after they’ve stopped to share a round of rice wine or three. Forest-based livelihoods such as these have long been part of the Asian elephants’ story. And the centre’s founders know that any more permanent rewilding must help sustain these communities too.

For the project’s coordinator, Michael Falshaw, that could include using money from foreign visits to employ local people as forest rangers. While for Duffilot, rewilding could yet take on a trans-border identity, with new forms of tourism based on free-roaming elephants and ecosystem protection.

But will local attitudes accommodate such a shift in the captive elephant’s role? For the most part, the five Laotian mahouts were unsentimental about their relationships with animals. One had a dog, until it killed a chicken and the farmer had to be paid back. The consensus on cats was that they serve little identifiable purpose.

Elephants, however, were a different matter. All agreed that being a mahout is vastly preferable to being an ordinary farmer. And when Boun-Soam was offered a substantial sum of money for his elephant by Chinese businessmen, he refused.

The elephant, which was given to Boun-Soam by his father when she was just five years old, was like “one of my children,” he explained. She was unambiguously not for sale. If the elephant can become pregnant through a partner in the forest, Soam hopes she will eventually have two calves: one to be sold to the centre for permanent release, and another to be passed down to his own son.

The connection between the mahouts and their elephants stretches far beyond utility. If this was better understood by governments, here and around the world, it could help both captive and wild elephants live in safety.

For the calf Do Khoun, that shift has already begun. Within moments of Naly resting his hand on his forehead, something in the leaves spooked Do Khoun and he started backwards, letting out a visceral, ground-shuddering call. The mahouts quickly withdrew, fearing the young elephant might charge, save for Naly, who stood where he was, watching the herd crash away into the trees.

“The thing I think about most is that the calf tries to kill me all the time,” Falshaw later told me of his visits to the jungle. But he was laughing as he spoke; because he knows that the creature’s new bravery is a sign of the rewilding project’s success.

“To go from being on for sale on an airport runway, to being in a national park where he has the bravery to charge people – I think that’s something to really try to do again.”

India Bourke is the online editor for the New Statesman's international edition.

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