Dramatic attempt to introduce elephant calf to herd is caught on camera

14 April 2016

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The amazing moment where elephant calf Gold was reintroduced to a herd in Vietnam is captured in this incredible footage – but what happened next is heartbreaking.

To get close enough to the herd, three-month-old Gold had to be pushed by elephant expert Jake Veasey – but while the little calf’s cries caught the 34-strong herd’s attention it also meant Jake was at risk.

Jake explains:

“Pushing him made him cry out, which is what I wanted to draw the elephants towards him, but also made it more than a little dicey. However, once I figured Gold was distracted by the noises of the herd we were able to leave the scene where we hoped Gold would be reunited with his family.

“We ran to a safe distance and listened to the herd and Gold coming together. We couldn’t see it but could hear lots of greeting and trumpeting and juvenile squeaking. We waited at a distance on the road some 300 metres away until we saw the herd run through the forest and cross the road. We went to check where we left Gold and tracks clearly showed he had stopped following us – and the herd had approached the drop-off point where we last saw the calf.

“We could also see what looked liked Gold’s footprints among the herd’s. We searched and called for Gold but found no sign of him and so we had to conclude that Gold had returned to the wild. We were elated that the plan had worked but were aware it could still fall apart. Gold’s mother might not be producing milk anymore, he might not be able to keep up with the herd or, despite this herd containing most of the elephants in the area where Gold was found, it still might not have included Gold’s mum. So we ensured field teams were on site over the next few days to keep an eye out for a lone calf so that we could step in if it failed."

Tragically within 12 hours came the news the team was dreading.

Jake continued:

“Sadly Gold was found alone some distance from the point where he had appeared to join the herd. The local team, having witnessed the attempt may yet try again, however, the chances of success diminish daily. The likelihood of Gold’s mum accepting and continuing to be able to produce milk lessen by the day and this is a dangerous and challenging process for all concerned – and having made five attempts to reunite Gold with his family, we may have to look for a long term solution for him in a sanctuary.”

Gold was found stuck in a well on 28 March 2016 and was taken to the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) about 30km away in Buon Don district. Since then, animal welfare charity Animals Asia, in partnership with Wild Welfare, Elephant Care International and North Carolina Zoo, as part of the Vietnam Elephant Initiative (VEI), have been overseeing his survival, and bringing in experts to advise on hand rearing and the potential for re-uniting him with his family.

Dave Neale and Jake Veasey with Gold at ECC

Jake Veasey, an expert in animal behaviour and welfare with extensive experience with wild and captive elephants has been assisting ECC to design the centre for elephants rescued from the local tourist trade where Gold will now likely live. As part of its work VEI is also lobbying for an end to the use of elephants within the local tourist trade as well as protection for the remaining wild elephants.

ECC is currently caring for a five-year-old male elephant, Jun (pictured below), that was badly injured due to a snare in the wild. Jun cannot be returned to the wild due to his injuries but will have a place at the ECC sanctuary when it is ready.

Jun the elephant calf

Among the goals of the ECC facility is ensuring the welfare of the elephants receives the high priority it deserves and that the facility can help establish social groups for rescued elephants that may have been isolated for decades. The team has also been able to learn a lot from his close encounter with the herd.

The 34 elephants are in excess of what had been previously estimated to be living within this location. It was previously believed that around 70 elephants are living in the whole of Dak Lak province, meaning close to half of them are within this one group or the numbers are potentially higher than estimated. And with Gold’s mother seemingly not among the herd, there could conceivably be another. However, with the team witnessing widespread illegal logging and burning, the number of remaining elephants is likely to continue to diminish.

Wild elephant habitat close to Buon Don

Animals Asia Animal Welfare Director Dave Neale said:

“The tragedy is it’s increasingly likely that Gold will spend his life in captivity – although our efforts to return him to the herd will continue if at all possible. There is at least the consolation in the fact that, thanks to ECC he will not spend his days being used by the tourist industry.

“We will lobby for this use of elephants to end. For their welfare and for the sake of the elephants that remain in the wild, attitudes need to change. There needs to be greater impetus in the fight to safeguard these wild elephants and their habitat from the rampant and illegal loggers. Stronger law enforcement is required to safeguard one of Vietnam’s last viable herds of elephants.

“To move on from seeing elephants as a resource – whether wild, or in captivity – there needs to be a sustainable step change. That will include the need for both increased education and replacement employment. The relief that there are potentially more elephants out there than were first believed is momentary. The news is entirely tempered by the knowledge that, as it stands, their long term fate does not look good.”

Dangers to elephant habitat