If you love animals, set them free.
Why don't charities release the animals they rescue? It's a common question, and quote often a common criticism too. These animals belong in the wild, so why are they being kept in sanctuaries?
In answering this question we run into the very idea of sanctuaries, that the animals by definition have a reason they need to be rescued from the wild, and that reason often means they cant return.
Some animals are relatively easy to release. In particular, birds are some of the easiest species to release, in general. Their food is usually easy to find and don't take particular skill, they are hard to be caught by poachers, and are very adaptable to live in many environments.
Here in Hong Kong, Kadoorie Farm and the SPCA both rehabilitate birds and release them if they can. Only those which are injured enough to be unable to eat or fly on their own are cared for in captivity. Many places such as the ACCB and Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia also release birds, sometimes providing supplementary food stations if needed (ranging from the simple seed stations for mynah birds to entire buffalo "buffets" for flocks of vultures).
More often than not, these birds can happily go on their way, only returning if they need (or want, as with these mynahs which enjoy human company after being raised as pets).
In fact, some animals are much better off in the wild. Pangolins are actually harder to keep in captivity than to release. When Save Vietnam's Wildlife released 21 pangolins to the forest there was a worry, as always, that they wouldn't survive. But keeping these animals in captivity probably has as much chance for them to die of stress. They are quite suitable for release, with ants abundant in the forest and not needing a large territory (a few hundred metres, it's estimated). But while they are more suitable to release, that doesn't mean they are easier. Aside from the months of rehabilitation and the development of natural equipment and techniques needed to 'train' the animals to find food as naturally as possible, they also need to protect their new homes for the next few decades, if not forever.
At the other end of the spectrum are elephants which can rarely be released, if ever. In Nepal, old lady elephant Mel Kali wanders the forest, unchained, untethered and untracked, sometimes returning to the government elephant facility if she wants to. Mel Kali is an extremely rare case of an elephant being able to roam freely and safely. Why is this case so unique?
Generally, you can simplify it in two main reasons: lack of forest in Asia, and lack of protection in Africa.
In Asia, if elephants were released to the wild, they would quickly run into trouble. Less at risk of ivory poaching than in Africa, they still interfere with human settlements, especially farms, eating expensive crops and causing damage. This human/elephant conflict is as dangerous for the humans as it is for the elephants. In places like Indonesia, sometimes wild elephants involved in altercations with local villages are caught and trained to patrol the forest and scare wild elephants off. While this isn't ideal, it saves elephant and human lives, as the alternative in many remote areas is simply to kill the elephant, often in self-defence.
Elsewhere the story is not much different. Thailand has large areas of forest, but this is mostly unprotected, and there are so many captive elephants in the country, and elephants need large areas to roam and graze. This is why there is such a need for sanctuaries, and in some special cases they are able to be released but still protected and tracked as 'semi-wild'.
In terms of their suitability for release, most species, and individual animals, lie somewhere in the middle.
Primates for example, lie variously all along this scale. Generally hard to catch with snares or with guns/slingshots (I have even heard some say that hunters "don't bother" with monkeys because they are too hard to catch) they have fewer threats in the forest than many animals. They reproduce quicker than many other large mammals and live in greater numbers. Some primates like silver langurs eat leaves, so finding food isn't a problem in the wild for langurs like these in the ACCB release programme in Cambodia.
Macaques similarly are easy to release where there is enough fruit and other food to sustain them, as they are superb at adapting to their environment. Wildlife Alliance have released many groups of macaques in Southern Cambodia. It's not always plain sailing though. While generally some species are more suitable than others, the charities have to assess each individual separately as well. At the Wildlife Alliance release site, Lonely the macaque has been integrated with two separate groups who were released to the forest. Not socialising well, she chose not to go with either of them (fingers crossed for Lonely, they are still trying to release her). Wildlife Alliance also release gibbons around the famous Angkor Wat temple. In some cases supplementary food is needed to make sure the animals have enough to survive, especially in the dry season.
These 'soft releases', where food is still provided but the animals are free to coma and go, can be quite successful, especially with primates. Orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia are released by the government, with aid from various charities. They were often raised in captivity, they never learned how to survive in the wild. As well as this, a release site and protected and patrolled areas can only be so large, there are often too many orangutans for the forest to support. this is why supplementary food is needed.
And then of course, bears. Animals Asia cares largely for bears that have been in cages all their lives. Almost all of their rescues are adult bears from bile farms, and they simply would not survive in the wild. Even if they could, there is no forest to go to and no one to protect it or people to enforce what laws there are in the countries they work in.
So what would be good candidates for release? Many animals including bears can (and are) released immediately if they are uninjured. For baby bears this would be a death sentence. Bear cubs rely on their mothers for around two years before they are independent.
So how can they ever be released? Firstly, with a lot of planning, resources and training, just like with the pangolins. But bear food is less plentiful than ants, and bears need a much bigger home territory than just a few hundred metres. If two bears meet in the forest, they may fight, leading to injury or death. Even if they had that huge amount of forest, again who will protect it, and will there be enough food for them to eat?
In 2012, Wildlife Alliance released two young adult sun bears, Sopheap and Sloat. Within months, both of these bears were caught in snare traps again with serious injuries. Thanks to the WA team, both bears were re-captured and brought back to the sanctuary. Sopheap still lives there today, but Sloat sadly died soon after her recapture.
Lessons were learned, and Sopheap is back in her semi-wild enclosure. To ensure there is no human interaction, WA developed a rail system to deliver and disperse food around her habitat without here having contact with humans, in preparation that she may one day be released again to a safer part of the forest.
While Wildlife Alliance are expanding their programmes to help protect the forest, other charities such as Free the Bears are planning their long-term release programmes. FTB are performing critical research into protected areas, bear territorial range and behaviours, and how much forest and food wild bears needs to sustain themselves. Once all this is in place, these semi-wild enclosures with no human interaction will become critical to success. Even then, it's most likely that first-generation rescued bears may not be the most suitable for release. In fact, it may be a second-generation, bears born in semi-wild conditions and trained from birth by their mothers, who have the biggest chance to survive.
So while we wish we can release these animals within weeks, month or years, it is a process that can take decades, or generations.
So next time someone asks why animals can't always be released back to the wild, help them to understand that's it's not always that easy. Even for healthy and well adjusted animals, they may have nowhere, or nowhere safe, to be released to. Nature has already been interfered with, and releasing animals is not as easy as the charities would like.
After all, believe it or not, but the best charities out there all have one ultimate goal which they know, and hold dear: to put themselves out of a job.