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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Heroin-Addicted Elephants Are Now Drug-Free

Four elephants in China got addicted to opium while being used to traffic heroin. Animal rescuers have detoxed them with methadone, and released the now-sober creatures back into the wild.

2 Substance

The elephants became restless and unruly when forced to go cold turkey. Photo via

The elephants became restless and unruly when forced to go cold turkey. Photo via

It’s not your typical story of triumph over addiction, but it’s plenty inspiring! Four opium-addicted elephants have been weaned off drugs after a year-long course of methadone, and been released back in to the wild.

The animals, who were being used by traffickers to transport heroin across the border between China and Myanmar, were given opium-laced bananas to make them more docile and easier to control. Once they got hooked, they became even more obedient as their trainers would reward them with more opium.

After the traffickers were caught, the elephants were sent to the Wild Elephant Valley animal sanctuary in Yunnan Province, China, where they were drug tested and found to have opium in their system. The keepers were unsure how to handle the situation, so they used an approach common for treating addiction in humans. Each elephant was given a heavy course of methadone—a drug commonly used to wean humans off heroin—for up to a year. 

“The elephants need at least five times more methadone than a human being would need at the start, and then we slowly reduced that until they no longer needed it,” says elephant breeder Chen Jiming. “It is every bit as hard for the elephants to go through the cold turkey regime as it is for humans.”

The keepers have now announced that all four have completed their “treatment” and are drug-free. They have been released back into a wild elephant herd where, presumably, they have lots of war stories to share, and perhaps hold private meetings to discuss their commitment to sobriety.

“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,” says Jiming. He says traffickers getting elephants hooked on drugs is “an important issue that needs to be tackled” with animal protection laws.