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Elephants Return To The Wild -- Clean And Free -- After Battling Heroin Addiction

Elephants who had been rescued from drug traffickers along the Chinese border with Myanmar have each been returned to live out their days in the wild, but only after years of treatment to kick their own substance addictions.

In a troubling twist on the already cruel practice of kidnapping these animals from the wild, drug smugglers have begun feeding elephants fruits laced with heroin to make them easier to capture and control. Once they are hooked, the elephants are then used to haul large quantities of illicit cargo overland into China.

After a smuggling bust in 2005, Chinese police rescued four elephants from their lives of suffering and exploitation, but that was only the first step along what would be a long road of recovery. Before they could set loose to live free again, the animals would first have to kick their dependency on drugs.

The elephants were sent to be rehabilitated at a wildlife facility in China's Yunnan province under the care of Chen Jiming. To avoid the potentially fatal withdrawals associated with going immediate cessation, the pachyderms were given the replacement drug methadone to wean them off their dependence on opiates.

"The elephants need at least five times more that a human being would need at the start and then we slowly reduced that until they no longer needed it," Jiming told The Mirror. "But it is every bit as hard for the elephants to go through the cold turkey regime as it is for humans."

Fortunately, following more than a year of treatment and closely-watched recovery, the elephants were ready to be released. In 2007, the four animals were finally returned to the forests to be among others like them.

Jiming says that since then, the formerly-addicted elephants have undergone a remarkable transition back into their natural setting.

"It has been a long battle but we can safely say that they are now reintegrated into elephant society and in some cases even have families of their own," he says.

The time and dedication it took to give the elephants a fresh start at life not only helped those animals, but their species as a whole. There are only thought to be around 250 asian elephants left in the region, roughly 90 percent of China's elephant population. Elsewhere, shrinking habitats and poaching have led to declines of 50 percent just within the last three generations.