Asian elephants, slightly smaller than their African cousins, are distinguishable by their smaller, round ears. They can be found in forested parts of India, and throughout Southeast Asia. These beautiful creatures are classified as endangered. The population of Asian elephants has declined by 50 percent in the last 75 years, leaving only an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 of these elephants left in the wild.
The wild Asian elephant populations are facing deforestation and agriculture development resulting in a loss of their habitat. Though the majority of illegal ivory comes from hunting African elephants, Asian elephants are still poached for their tusks, as well as their skin for use in jewelry.
An entire third of Asian elephant populations is found in captivity, and this includes the inhumane circus industry. For the past two decades, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would send the elephants that needed to be retired, due to their inability to perform tricks for a large crowd, to a reserve in central Florida. Many animal rights and activist groups have accused the reserve of using cruel practices to tend to the elephants.
Reports on the reserve, owned by the now-closed circus, have exposed elephants being chained to concrete enclosures, with some sustaining leg and foot injuries. Thankfully, action has been taken and the retired circus elephants are starting to be moved to a 135-acre sanctuary called White Oak Conservation, which is in no way associated with the circus.
The elephants were moved over 200 miles through customized trucks that could only carry to of the gentle giants at a time. The first herd to arrive has explored the climate-controlled barn, with veterinarians and specialists consistently available, a large pine forest, the ponds, wetlands, and open grasslands. These elephants, who will be joined by 20 more circus rescues over the next few weeks, finally have enough free space to roam comfortably, or stay close to the barn and their human caregivers.
Michelle Gadd, who oversees the conservations endangered and threatened species, recalled, “There was more than one wet eye that day. I really loved seeing one of the elephants just flow down in the forest, closer her eyes and have a good solid nap for an hour. Just to see her that comfortable that she’d have a snooze under a palm tree was really beautiful.”
This first herd has been socializing for months and includes one set of full sisters and several half sisters. Due to the bonds that have formed, the White Oak Conservation aims to accommodate their natural, wild behaviors and keep bonded groups together. “Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment,” said Nick Newby, leader of the elephant care team. “I was so happy to seem them come out together and reassure and comfort each other, just like wild elephants do, and then head out to explore their new environment.”
The White Oak Conservation has been hosting limited tours during the COVID pandemic, but will not be allowing tours of the elephants at this time. They wish to give the creatures plenty of time and space to acclimate to their new home before introducing strangers. “We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” said Mark and Kimbra Walter, the philanthropists that funded the refuge. “We are working to protect wild animals in their native habitats. But for these elephants that can’t be released, we are pleased to give them a place where they can live comfortably for the rest of their lives.”
If you want to stop the ever-present animal cruelty in the circus industry and protect other animals like these Asian elephants, sign this petition to tell the Russian government to implement federal anti-cruelty laws that protect all animals.
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