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ELEPHANT REINTEGRATION PROJECT

Radio-collared elephant calves being walked in Manas National Park as part of their acclimatisation
Hand-raised elephant calves undergo acclimatisation in Manas National Park, for reintegration with wild herds

 


 BACKGROUND

Asian elephants are among the most commonly-displaced species of large mammals in northeast India. Annually, a number of them, mostly young calves but also sub-adults, get separated from their natal herds due to various natural or manmade causes.
 
In India, with its history of elephant domestication, individuals displaced from the wild generally end up in captivity of humans. However, a new trend is on the make – ‘reintegration of displaced elephants with wild herds through appropriate rehabilitation programmes’.
 
An outcome of increasing conservation and welfare awareness, elephant reintegration is now emerging as a clear necessity. Poaching, conflicts, habitat destruction and fragmentation among others, have taken its toll on the species. Any success at replenishing the stock lost to the wild by reintegrating displaced individuals, would only benefit their survival, albeit by a very small degree.
 
Notwithstanding this fractional benefit to elephant conservation, it is a moral obligation that these displaced calves are allowed opportunities to go back to their mothers, or at least back to the wild where they belong.

 

ABOUT

An elephant calf is bottle-fed at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), Assam
An elephant calf is bottle-fed at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), Assam

In northeast India, particularly in Assam, a number of wild elephant calves are separated from their herd, every year. Reasons for these displacements are varied – accidentally trapped in tea garden trenches, left behind during conflicts with humans, injuries either man-induced or otherwise, washed away by floods, among others - or even desertion for unknown reasons.  

An elephant calf is brought to the CWRC in a Mobile Veterinary Service (MVS)
An elephant calf is admitted to CWRC for hand-raising

The Elephant Reintegration Project was initiated with an aim to rehabilitate these displaced calves back into the wild. It is a joint venture of the Assam Forest Department and International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI).

The project was an offshoot of the IFAW-WTI run Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) based near Kaziranga National Park in Assam. With many displaced elephant calves landing up at the centre, their rehabilitation into the wild was a preferred choice.

The first priority of the rehabilitators, following discovery of a lone calf, is to attempt for immediate reunion with the natal herd. Even as the calf is stabilised in situ, extensive search is carried out to locate its herd. While the search is on, the calf is termed "temporarily-displaced," pending reunion. These searches usually last 2-3 days, but are not always successful. In these cases, the calf is classified as "permanently-displaced" and is formally inducted into the CWRC for handraising.  

Elephant calves at CWRC
Elephant calves at CWRC

Handraising elephant calves at CWRC is always done with the goal of returning them back to the wild. Young calves are bottle-fed till they are 2.5 years old. They are allowed to interact with one another to facilitate social bonding.  The calves are then gradually acquainted with their natural environment. They are taken for daily accompanied walks into the forest to promote natural behaviour, particularly foraging.
 
At a suitable age, the calves that have developed a close familial bond, are readied for relocation to a suitable reintegration site. The selection of the reintegration site itself is a prolonged scientific exercise. This involves evaluation of numerous factors like presence of wild herds, resource availability, distance from human habitations, and activity of poachers.

Fitting radio-collars before relocation to the release site
Radio-collars being fitted on elephant calves before their relocation to the rehabilitation site

The relocation of the elephant calves is preceded by a detailed disease screening. The calves are also microchipped and fitted with collars with embedded radio-transmitters to help track them in the wild. They are then moved to the reintegration site through road transport, often mildly sedated to prevent them from panicking.

The reintegration of the calves follows a soft-release protocol, allowing prolonged acclimatisation to the wilderness that is to be their home. At nights, they are confined in a spacious stockade for safety, and during the days they are taken for long walks in different parts of the forest. To facilitate interaction with wild herds, the accompanying keeper remains hidden only to observe their behavior.

Team wait while loading elephant calves for relocation
The project team members wait while loading elephants on the truck for relocation to the rehabilitation site
An elephant calf is loaded on to a truck for relocation to the rehabilitation site
An elephant calf walks off the truck in Manas National Park
Left: An elephant calf is loaded on to a truck for relocation to the rehabilitation site
Right: Elephant calves walk out of the truck at the rehabilitation site

Over a span of time, supplementary food - initially provided to meet the dietary needs of the calves - is gradually reduced to encourage dependence on natural diet. Gradually, the calves detach themselves from their keeper. They become more and more reluctant to return to the stockade at nights, leading to eventual independence from their foster parent.  The calves are then remotely monitored till a successful reintegration with wild herds is firmly established.

Elephant calves being taken for daily walks as part of their long-term rehabilitation
Elephant calves being walked in the forest as part of their acclimatisation, for eventual reintegration with wild herds

 

WINS

--Nine elephant calves (infants and neonates) found alone have been reunited with their natal herds within 48 hours of rescue.
 
--Two of the elephant calves relocated to Manas National Park have been moving with wild herds, indicating their reintegration.
 
--A total of 34 displaced/distressed elephants have been successfully treated/attended to as required and released in the wild. Among these was a young calf that was rescued by the Assam Forest Department from a marsh near Kaziranga National Park
in December 2008; the calf had an abscess on its hind leg and also had a congenital deformity in the stifle joint in its right hind leg. The calf was treated at CWRC and was reunited with its natal herd. Successful reintegration was doubtful considering the physical debility of the calf. However, the calf was sighted in the wild with its herd a month after its reunion, in January 2009.

An elephant calf that was reunited with its natal herd in Kaziranga National Park, Assam
Elephant calf successfully reunited with its natal herd after treatment for an abscess, by IFAW-WTI veterinarians. The calf was sighted with its herd in January 2009, a month after its reunion.

 

UPDATES

Post-release monitoring of the hand-raised elephant calves
Animal keepers track elephant calves undergoing rehabilitation in
Manas National Park

--A total of five elephant calves, handraised at CWRC, have been successfully released in Manas National Park. The calves became independent of their keepers within four months of accompanied in situ acclimatisation. Efforts to monitor all of these calves continue.

The elephant calf found trapped in a mudpit
The elephant calf trapped in a mud pit

--Nine elephant calves admitted from different areas in Assam are currently being handraised at CWRC for eventual rehabilitation.

--In October 2009, a male elephant calf was found trapped in a mud pit at a tea garden near Kaziranga National Park. Dry earth was poured into the pit to provide a solid footing for the calf. Soon the calf climbed out of the pit and headed to the direction where its herd remained in wait.

--One of the calves being handraised by IFAW-WTI has a deformed hind leg, which has worried her rehabilitators as this could hamper the prospects of her return to the wild. However, CWRC veterinarians have developed an orthopaedic shoe to attempt to correct the debilitation. It remains to be seen if she will be able to recover completely, but on a positive note improvement has been observed. 

 

 

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