Herding & Rewilding

A Unique Project to Return Elephants to Where They Belong

Free at Last!

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Elephants are extremely social and intelligent animals. In order to offer our elephants the best possible living conditions, the ECC created different areas where elephants can freely interact during most of the day, have the opportunity of recreating in a semi-natural living environment and express natural behaviours. This way, they receive the cognitive stimulation they need so as to avoid boredom.

The ultimate goal of the Center is to release elephants back to Nam Pouy National Protected Area. Doing this is much harder than one may think. In the wild an elephant’s herd is composed of its actual extended family. Here at the Center we have unrelated individuals, who have been raised by humans, and are now put together in a semi-wild environment. To combat this issue, we have been doing behavioral studies to learn the personalities of each of our elephants and to better understand the personalities they get along with.

Our mahouts are also contributors to this herding process. Many people ask if we have scientists who specialize in behavioral biology here, but in fact outside of our two biologists, we have 28 experts in elephant behavior: our mahouts. Mahouts spend their whole lives working with elephants, and form bonds with their elephants in particular.

It is for this reason that they always accompany us in the observation towers or in the field, to give their input on the behaviors and herds we are putting together. At the end of the day the herding process is a huge team effort to ensure it happens in a safe and controlled environment, along with rigorous data collection to support our observations with numerical evidence.

Once we have strong herds here and a strong hold over Nam Pouy, the idea would be to release a new herd every few years with GPS collars on and track their progress in the wild. We are currently in the data collection phase of this project, setting up experiments to test the bonds of our elephants and their capability to survive in the wild. At the same time, we are also working to learn more about the wild population and the carrying capacity of the park to ensure that any introductions we make will only lead to improved conditions for the captive and wild elephants, as well as the ecology of the forest as a whole.

Socialization Area

Elephants are extremely social animals. In the wild they live in close knit family groups of females and youngsters. They will learn the different skills they need to survive from the other members of the group. Males leave the group in their teenage years and join herds for short periods for breeding.

Elephants in captivity are usually separated from the mother at a young age. They don’t have the opportunity to form a family group. Some of our elephants have spent most of their life by themselves and become stressed when they see others.

How can we recreate a natural living environment?

We want our elephants to live in conditions as closely to the wild as possible. The goal is to reintroduce them one day, so they would have to be prepared. We need to know the character of each elephant and figure out who we can pair them with. They need to spend time together within a socially coherent group and build a relationship of trust.

What is the socialization area?

The ECC created an area in the forest. Here, elephants can interact freely during a big part of the day, recreating a semi-natural living environment. To avoid distress, we have created areas where elephants can enjoy being…elephants. The socialization area offers a unique opportunity for our visitors to observe elephants behaving as elephants, without receiving any instructions from their mahouts.

The main benefits of the socialization area are:

  • Establish bonds and hierarchies among our rescued elephants that come from different backgrounds;
  • Giving males and females an opportunity to socialize in a natural way;
  • Females can learn how to take care of their future offspring by spending time with experienced mothers. Calves grow up learning from different elephants as they would in the wild.