Chiangrai Times –Early on April 17, while most Thais were recovering from their traditional Songkran celebrations, a baby elephant was born in a wilderness reserve in central Thailand.
This was an important moment not just for Jarunee, a 15-year-old former tourist elephant from Surin, who had carried the baby inside her for 22 months.
Staff at the Sublangka Wildlife Sanctuary near Lop Buri, had been waiting for this day. They got on the phone to alert Patricia Sims, a Canadian filmmaker making a documentary about the elephants at this well-protected wilderness zone.
Sublangka valley is one of three sites in the Central, North and Northeast regions – about 1.1 million rai of wilderness in total – used by the Elephant reintroduction Foundation, a Royal-initiated Thai non-profit organisation that releases captive elephants back to the forest.
For Sims, commissioned by the group to publicise its work, the baby’s birth was historic.
“To the best of our knowledge, it’s the first time a baby has been born to two formerly captive elephants who were reintroduced to the wild, and naturally mated,” she says.
It was also a big relief for Sims and Michael Clark, her cinematographer and editor, giving them a dramatic focal point for their film, “Return to the Forest”, after shooting many hundreds of hours of footage.
“We had been waiting for two years for this to happen. Finally, we had a joyful ending for our film and cause for optimism.”
The Reintroduction Foundation has been working towards this goal – healthy individuals rejuvenating their herd back in their natural habitat – for 10 years.
Sims says the Thai foundation, in returning captive elephants back to the wild in three large protected forests where there is no tourism, has found a solution of major significance.
The plight of the Asian elephant is not as dire as those in Africa. Asian elephants are an endangered species, and although not as rampantly poached for tusks as their African cousins, they suffer from severe habitat loss. This has diminished wild populations and created a huge threat to their preservation, with humans occupying much habitat that was once their natural range.
Creating an opportunity for Asian elephants to be reintroduced to natural habitat is one way to help ensure they survive, Sims says. And the foundation has shown captive elephants are excellent candidates for reintroduction to the wild.
Thailand has about 4,000 elephants – a captive population of about 2,800, mainly in tourist facilities, plus 1,200 to 1,500 in the wild. Many of the wild elephants are on the Thai-Myanmar border, but these beasts are often at risk of being poached for logging, killed for meat or ivory, or having their children captured and sold to Thai tourist camps.
“In Africa, the problem is more poaching, but the [elephant] population is decreasing every year. Whereas in India, human/elephant conflict is catastrophic – elephants are going into the fields and eating villagers’ crops.” The results were ugly for both man and beast.
“The fact that this conservation initiative is happening in Thailand is remarkable, but also appropriate given the importance of elephants in Thai culture and tradition” Sims says.
“Most of the Asian elephants left in the world are captive animals. But returning elephants to the forest is one way of ensuring their survival.
“In some cases the foundation raises funds to purchase certain elephants whose owners can no longer afford to look after them. Such was the case with a young elephant named Nong-Mai, whose life as a street-begging elephant in Bangkok we had been filming for over a year. The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation purchased Nong-Mai to return her to a life in the forest. Since that time we have followed her progress, watching how she has become a wild elephant again.
“In most cases, organisations or individuals donate elephants to the foundation. Sometimes these are mature tourist or logging elephants who are no longer used for work. In other cases, elephants are donated by owners who for various reasons wish for them to have a better life. The recent donation of a young bull named Tawan is one such elephant and his release to the forest has also proven to be a success,” she says.
“Nong-Mai, Tawan, and a few other elephants with different stories are the stars of our 30-minute documentary.”
“Return to the Forest” was launched at a gala opening at Siam Paragon on August 14, to coincide with World Elephant Day, another idea by the Canadian film director. The film launch was classed as an 80th birthday gift to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, who helped set up the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation.
The film is a 30-minute “short” of top quality, narrated by Hollywood star William Shatner, who Sims contacted to work on the project.
It features glorious scenes from the wild – the first days of Jarunee’s yet-to-be-named baby, plus an interview with Sivaporn Dardarananda, the foundation’s secretary-general, who explains its operations and intent. – Jim Pollard