Wildlife Rehabilitation and Release: Never Perfect, Always a Risk

IFAW-WTI staff working to release one of the Asian elephant calves.

IFAW and our partners, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), have been engaged this past week in the final step of a multi-year rehabilitation process, which was to culminate in the release of six elephants from Kaziranga Rehabilitation Center to the Manas Conservation Reserve.

We lost one of the elephants, Deepa, a six-year old female who died just before she was to be moved. The other five elephants were successfully relocated to Manas. Deepa had been cared for by WTI staff in Kaziranga since she was orphaned at three months of age.

I can only imagine how sad these caregivers feel after six years of caring for Deepa, spending whole days and even nights with her, bottle feeding her, taking her for walks in the forest. My family recently lost our dog of thirteen years and we simply cannot even discuss it. It leaves a big hole in your life and I know that Deepa has left a similar emotional vacuum. We all share in the sadness.

An autopsy was performed on Deepa by four veterinarians who concluded that she died of congestive heart failure. This was the second time we attempted to move Deepa, the first attempt happened in 2008 with another group, however at that time, she was found to not be medically fit for the journey. This time, all of the elephants, by protocol, were given an examination by a veterinarian and found to be in proper health to make the trip, unfortunately Deepa succumbed to respiratory problems just before being moved.

As we take great pains to assure the health and protection of animals being released (three veterinarians made the trip to Manas), all of our animal relief staff are distraught about the loss. This was our third move of elephants to Manas and Deepa was our first and only loss.

Our moving of elephants is not confined to India. In Malawi this past year, we moved eighty-three elephants threatened by human conflict to a secure reserve over 240 kilometers with no fatalities. Frankly, I find the success we have had in these moves to be quite astounding. Moving huge animals is exceedingly difficult, and our success is a credit to the skills and dedication of the staff on the ground who carry out these amazing logistical tasks.

What we all must keep in mind is this explanation by Dr. Ian Robinson, IFAW's Emergency Relief Director:

"We only move animals in cases where they are injured, orphaned or have had their health and safety compromised. Our first choice when encountering injured wildlife is to treat the animal in the field and help it to rejoin its family. Unfortunately, Deepa could not rejoin her natal herd so we had to care for her at the Center in the hope that we could integrate her into a wild herd when she was older."

Working with people like Dr. Ian Robinson and Vivek Menon, Director of WTI (one of the world’s foremost experts on elephants), I know the great lengths they go to in order to ensure the greatest degree of safety and security that they can.

No doubt, there is stress in these moves and they will never be perfect. That is why we only undertake these moves when it constitutes the best, or only, chance to overcome the threats animals face and to reintegrate them back to where they belong – not in cages (of whatever size) but in the wild. My advice to staff has been "yes, let’s grieve for an unfortunate incident with a great animal, but let’s get right back to work helping other animals in crisis."

-- FO

For more information on the International Fund for Animal Welfare efforts to save animals in crisis around the world, visit www.ifaw.org

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