Former circus elephants settle in a refuge

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A dozen former circus elephants recently arrived at their new home at a North Florida wildlife refuge.

The 12 female Asian elephants, aged 8 to 38, had previously traveled with Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey. Now they are moving to White Oak Conservation, a 17,000 acre facility in Yulee, about 30 miles north of Jacksonville.

The elephants lived on a Ringling Bros. farm. in Polk City, Fla., about 200 miles away for three years. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced in March 2015 that they remove elephants by 2018. Because they lived their lives in captivity, elephants were unable to return to the wild.

“White Oak hired animal care specialists with experience with elephants in zoos and other wildlife areas, and these people started getting to know and socialize elephants three years ago,” said Michelle Gadd, who runs Walter Conservation at Treehugger.

(White Oak, owned by attorney Kimbra Walter and her husband, businessman and Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, is a division of Walter Conservation, which is dedicated to saving endangered species.)

The first habitat and barns were completed this spring. The elephants traveled in pairs by custom truck, spending around 4 to 6 hours on the road, depending on traffic. Veterinarians and animal care specialists accompanied them.

“When they arrived, the elephants got out of the trucks, into the pens and barn, until the 12 were together again, then we opened the doors and released them into the forest,” Gadd explains.

Settle down and socialize


An elephant feeds in the forest.
Stéphanie Rutan / Conservation of White Oak

The group includes two siblings (Piper and Mable, and April and Asha), as well as many half-sisters. Five of them have the same father but different mothers and four others have another father but different mothers. All were born in the United States

“They have all been on the same farm in Polk City for several years,” says Gadd. “They knew each other by the sight, the smell and the sound, but many had never been together in the same areas or enclosures before, so we had to find that – find out who got along with whom, who prefers to be with. who, who chooses who, etc.

All the elephants are healthy and the acclimatization process went smoothly, says Gadd. They are active and very curious.

“After thoroughly testing all the walls, bars, and pipes in their new barn, they can now roam an area of ​​135 acres and look for plants to eat or new items to look at or to play with or use as tools (per example, they break branches and hold them in their trunk to scratch their stomachs).

The elephant barn has high vaulted ceilings, windows, water fountains and air conditioning systems. They can go outdoors and explore a variety of habitats including pine forests, wetlands, and open grasslands. They wandered the woods, swam in ponds and wallowed in the mud.

Social groups change, with elephants forming different combinations. Sometimes they are all together, sometimes two or four, or sometimes they prefer to be alone. Luna, one of the two older elephants, almost always stays with the younger, Piper.

“We can definitely see individual personalities,” says Gadd. “Some elephants are lonely, some like crowds, some like to remind others who’s boss, some like to have a little sidekick by their side, many like to test trees and branches, toss things.”

More elephants to come


The elephants are heading towards a pond.
Stéphanie Rutan / Conservation of White Oak

Asian elephants are classified as endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).It is estimated that only 50,000 animals remain in the wild and the number of populations is declining. They are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching and conflict with humans.

There are still 20 elephants at Polk City Farm under the care of White Oak keepers. They should join April, Myrtle, Angelica and the others. When and who comes will depend on how quickly the new facilities can be completed and the health and social dynamics of the group, Gadd says.

Conservation of white oak organizes limited scheduled tours due to the pandemic. However, visitors currently cannot visit the elephants during the construction of additional habitats and barns.


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