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Hand-raising Orphan Asian Elephants

Chapter 11: Guidelines for Release of Orphan Elephants to the Wild


By Vijetha Perera

With contributions from Bhaskar Choudhury

Sections in this chapter include the following: 

  • Advantages of rehabilitation programs

  • Factors influencing rehabilitation success

  • Release risks

  • Release criteria

  • Release methods

  • Release site

  • Comprehensive evaluation and monitoring

elephant in grass.jpg

Photo credit: Hollis Burbank-Hammarlund, Sri Lanka, 2015



Rehabilitation programs for displaced, sick, injured, or orphaned elephants play an important role in conservation efforts. This article discusses guidelines for the release of elephant calves, taking into account the challenges and risks associated with such endeavors.

Advantages of Rehabilitation Programs


The ultimate goal of rehabilitation programs is to release calves back to the wild. By rehabilitating elephants and preparing them for release, the financial burden of long-term captive care can be avoided. Elephant welfare is prioritized and released elephants contribute to genetic diversity and conservation efforts.


Factors Influencing Rehabilitation Success


The success of a rehabilitation program depends on the survival ability of released elephants and their integration into existing breeding populations. Key indicators of success include post-release survival rates and successful reproduction in the wild. These factors are key for evaluating the overall success and impact of rehabilitation efforts.

When elephant calves are orphaned deep in the forest they usually die and are very rarely noticed by humans. The majority of orphan elephant calves found by humans wander into the village or or are found in adjacent jungles shared by both elephants and humans.

Release Risks

Despite the benefits, releasing rehabilitated elephants comes with individual and population-level risks. Challenges include insufficient foraging skills, inadequate predator avoidance abilities, and potential human-wildlife conflicts. Population-level risks involve the spread of diseases. Thorough evaluation and management of these risks are necessary for the success and sustainability of rehabilitation and release programs.

Release Criteria

The decision to release an elephant into the wild is based on a comprehensive assessment of its ability to survive in its natural environment. Age, body size, and health are crucial factors to consider in this evaluation. Elephants over five years old, displaying normal physical attributes and showing no health issues, are prime candidates for release. Social behavior, foraging capabilities, and play activities also contribute to the assessment. A reintroduction study in Thailand found introducing calves or adults with calves increased group formations and establishment of stable elephant herds (Thitaram et al. 2015).

Release Methods

Rehabilitated elephant calves are typically released in small groups, with an emphasis on individuals that show friendly and cooperative behavior. They should be fitted with radio collars for post-release monitoring. The release process can be conducted using either the hard release method or the soft release method.

In the hard release method, the elephants are sedated, transported to a predetermined release site, and then set free. See Figures 11.1 to 11.5.



Figure 11.1 Sedated elephant with radio collar.JPG
Figure 11.3 Loading of sedated elephants.JPG

Figure 11.1 Sedated elephant with radio collar

Figure 11.2 Loading of sedated elephants

Figure 11.2  Transporting of elephant calves.JPG
Figure 11.4 Unloading elephants for release.JPG

Figure 11.3 Transporting elephant calves to release site

Figure 11.4 Unloading elephants for release

The soft release method involves a gradual and controlled introduction of rehabilitated animals to their natural environment. In contrast to hard release, this method allows the animals to acclimate to their surroundings, providing them with time to build strength, continue developing natural behaviors, and expand ranging areas before achieving full independence. This approach often includes providing supplemental food and shelter during the transition period.

Release Site

Site selection for release involves balancing many factors:

  • Size

  • Food and water resources

  • Connectivity with adjoining forest

  • Proximity to human settlements or captive elephant camps which can attract released calves

  • Extent, intensity of human-elephant conflict in the area

  • General acceptability of elephants among the community

  • Feasibility of post release monitoring

Figure 11.5 Released elephant drinking water.JPG

Figure 11.5 Released elephants drinking water

Comprehensive Evaluation and Monitoring

When deciding on the release of rehabilitated elephants, a comprehensive evaluation should consider welfare, conservation, and long-term objectives. Post-release monitoring is integral and should encompass monitoring survival rates, welfare issues, ecological impacts, and the need for additional management interventions. The IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group Guidelines for the Rehabilitation of Captive Elephants as a Possible Restocking Option for Wild Populations provide a framework for monitoring efforts, including demographic, behavioral, ecological, genetic, health and mortality, and social, cultural, and economic monitoring (Thitaram et al. 2020).

Post-Release Monitoring Challenges and Solutions


Monitoring rehabilitated elephants post-release presents challenges, such as dense vegetation, wildlife risks, and nocturnal observations. Radio telemetry using GPS collars, is a reliable method for tracking movements and gathering remote data. While financial constraints may limit the number of collars used, monitoring efforts, including visual identification with canvas collars, contribute to understanding the long-term success of rehabilitation programs.


Monitoring of Released Elephants


The post-release monitoring of rehabilitated elephants serves multiple objectives, encompassing the assessment of their health, safety, evaluation of acclimatization to the new environment, observation of behavior related to exploring surroundings, study of interactions within the group, and responses to encounters with wild elephants and other wildlife.


In the initial four weeks post-release, daily observations are carried out, which transition to once a week for a period of three to four months. Subsequently, ongoing observations occur once or twice a month, ensuring that monitoring remains consistent and up-to-date. Notably, location data from VHF or GPS collars fitted on some elephants aids in indirect monitoring of their movements.


Very High Frequency (VHF) and Global Positioning System (GPS) Collars

VHF Collars

The primary real-time monitoring technique, VHF radio telemetry, tracks individual elephants from a distance. For elephants fitted with VHF collars, directional antennas and receivers are used to track signals. Triangulation methods determine their location, with the monitoring team approaching until visual contact is established. Vehicle tracking is employed when feasible, and on-foot tracking is done when necessary, maintaining minimum distances for safety and to prevent habituation to vehicles. VHF is critical for visual examination of released animals to assess health and social integration.


GPS Collars

GPS collars offer an alternative. These collars include a built-in VHF transmitter for tracking. The GPS collars record geographic coordinates directly, allowing operators to pre-design signal time intervals for location data retrieval via satellites or the mobile telephone network.


Both VHF and GPS collars contribute significantly to the comprehensive monitoring of released elephants, offering real-time insights into their behavior, movement patterns, and interactions with the surrounding environment.


The rehabilitation and release of elephant calves require careful consideration, evaluation, and monitoring. By adhering to guidelines, incorporating effective monitoring techniques, and addressing challenges, programs like the Elephant Transit Home, Sri Lanka can contribute significantly to the conservation and well-being of elephants in the wild (Perera et al. 2018). The successes and lessons learned from these programs have broader implications for the effectiveness of wildlife rehabilitation efforts globally.

Literature Cited


Perera V, Silva-Flecher A, Jayawardena S, Kumudini N, Prasad T. 2018. Rehabilitation of orphaned Asian elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) calves in Sri Lanka. J. Wildlife Research 38:13-24.


Thitaram C, de Silva S, Soorae P, Daim S, Lopez-Perez AB. 2020. Guidelines for the Rehabilitation of Captive Elephants as a Possible Restocking Option for Wild Populations: IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

Thitaram C, Dejchaisri S, Somgird C, Angkawanish T, Brown J, Phumphuay R, Chomdech S, Kangwanpong D. 2015. Social group formation and genetic relatedness in reintroduced Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Thailand. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 172:52-57.


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