Monday, 9 April 2012

Setting an Elephant Free

It’s been a critical start to the year for Thailand’s beloved elephants. After the mutilated corpses of four wild elephants were found in Kaeng Krachan, Thailand’s largest national park, a series of raids by wildlife officers on elephant camps and wildlife sanctuaries around the country resulted in the confiscation of 26 elephants, a messy and complex business tarnished by violence, misinformation and nasty politicking.

While I don’t pretend to be expert on the matter (for a balanced and well-researched view, read, it’s clear that Thailand’s tourism industry and its relationship with the elephant is under the spotlight, particularly the notion of ethical and sustainable methods of caring for Thailand’s pachyderm population.

In the wake of this all this controversy, it’s heartening to see one elephant camp make a ground-breaking move for one of its charges, one which flies in the face of animals as financial commodities. In what must have been a heartbreaking and difficult decision, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, located in northern Thailand under the stewardship of the wise and wonderful John Roberts, has decided to release their young bull elephant, Tawan, back into the wild under the watch of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation.

An innovation of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, this organisation has quietly and successfully reintroduced over 20 domestic elephants into specially designated wilderness areas since 1997, a major boost to dwindling wild elephant populations. Like horses, domesticated elephants are more than capable of surviving in the wild once they are weaned from their dependence on hand-feeding – it’s simply a matter of giving them the freedom, room to move and a sustainable, safe place to dwell.

And so to Plai Tawan, a six-year-old tusker (minus one magnificent tusk after a play mishap) who has lived at GTAEF since he was a baby, rescued after being hit by a car. A rambunctious, nervous youngster, this handsome fellow has never been the easiest of charges (for his full story, read John Robert’s blog,; and as a male, he was often isolated from the herd, living a lonely life tethered on a jungle hillside away from trouble.

(This beautiful portrait of Tawan and his tusk was taken by elephant photographer extraordinaire, Carol Stevenson.

After a visit to one of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation sites near Lampang in 2008, Roberts began to question whether Tawan too might benefit from living in the wild. “What if we could sign him up for this?,” he writes in his blog. “Would he be happier? Would freedom to choose where to roam, who to interact with and how (with the inherent dangers in this for a young bull) be preferable to a dull routine and severely limited freedom?  Would this freedom make up for lack of sugarcane and bananas he’s eaten daily since he was weaned?”

Finally, after watching poor Tawan become more and more agitated, the decision was made; an introductory phone call was met with a definitive “yes please” (a healthy bull elephant being a rare prize for a wild herd), and the wheels were very quickly set in motion. As of two days ago, Tawan is now on his way to freedom in 160,000 acres of protected forest, commencing a gradual introduction to life as one of the Queen’s own roaming elephants.

           (Tawan being loaded into the truck to commence the journey to his new home. 

We wish you well, Tawan – and congratulations GTAEF and Mr Roberts on a brave and bold decision.


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