Photograph by Bill Sikes, AP Photo
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Asian elephants with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus perform for the last time on May 1, 2016, in Providence, Rhode Island.

Photograph by Bill Sikes, AP Photo

Ringling’s retired circus elephants to move to conservation center

The Asian elephants, which have been at the center of a long debate over performing animals, will get a 2,500-acre, state-of-the-art habitat.

The retired elephants of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be moving to a spacious new home at a Florida conservation center next year, concluding a journey that began in 2015 when the circus’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, first announced it would be phasing out its use of performing elephants.

White Oak Conservation’s purchase of 35 Asian elephants from Feld Entertainment, announced today, creates what will be the largest community of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere, according to the organization. Construction has begun on a 2,500-acre (four-square-mile) habitat that is slated for completion in 2021.

The new refuge will let the animals choose among different landscapes—including wetlands, grasslands, and woodlands—and will be speckled with 11 waterholes, each big enough for the elephants to wade in.

“It is a chance for us to let them return to just being elephants in a situation that is as close to the wild as we can make,” says Michelle Gadd, who leads global conservation efforts for Walter Conservation. (White Oak, owned by businessman and Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter and his wife Kimbra, is part of Walter Conservation, a division of the family’s philanthropic work dedicated to conserving wildlife.)

These elephants—a species whose lifespan in captivity averages about 45 years—range in age from a few years to more than 70 years. Having lived mostly in captivity, the elephants cannot be returned to the wild. But this move is a step in the right direction, says Ed Stewart, the president and co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a California-based nonprofit that takes in abandoned, abused, and retired performing animals. “It looks like it’s going to be very good captive welfare, some of the best captive welfare that you can have,” he says.

An animal without a home

Asian elephants are an endangered species, and the worldwide population has declined by at least half in the past 75 years. An estimated 20,000 to 40,000 remain in the wild. This decline is largely due to habitat destruction; only 15 percent of the animals’ historic range through South and Southeast Asia remains today because of deforestation, agricultural development, and industrial expansion. The population is also affected by smaller-scale threats, such as poaching for skin and tusks.

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A pair of retired elephants stands together in 2016 at Ringling Bros.’ 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida. Thirty elephants from the center will be moving to a new, 2,500-acre habitat at White Oak in 2021.

About a third of all Asian elephants live in captivity. They are used for agricultural purposes, logging, and tourist attractions, mostly in India, Thailand, and Myanmar. The process of training young captive elephants can be brutal and often involves fear-based methods that emphasize punishment, inflict pain, and sometimes draw blood.

Several hundred Asian elephants live in the United States, the majority of them in zoos. Most of the rest live in sanctuaries or refuges; a handful are still owned by circuses, performing in states and communities where that use of wild animals is still legal.

Because Asian elephants are smaller than their African cousins and in general considered easier to manage, around the mid-1800s they became go-to stock for traveling circus shows. The trend started with the elephant conga line in P.T. Barnham’s self-proclaimed “Greatest Show on Earth.”

A 2011 Mother Jones investigation reported that the elephants suffered mistreatment and poor care from the beginning. One animal from Barnum’s first elephant-capturing expedition died in transit from what is now Sri Lanka to the U.S., the magazine reported, and training techniques with tools such as electric prods became standard practice that continued once Feld Entertainment bought Barnum’s circus in 1967. The investigation revealed that even well into the 21st century, many of the performing animals under Feld were overworked, and a number died from health complications related to their living conditions.

In 2016, pressured by animal rights activists and changing public opinion, Feld retired the last of its performing elephants. All of them—40 at the time—were moved to a 200-acre plot of land called Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC). One year later, the company shut down the circus for good. (See inside the Center for Elephant Conservation.)

Even at the CEC, the controversy continued. Several animal rights and welfare groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, criticized the size of the elephants’ enclosures. Reuters reported in 2016 that the elephants were kept chained at night.

In response to these claims, Feld defended its commitment to the welfare of the animals and kept the elephants at the CEC. Over the years, some were sold to zoos, a few died, and several more were born.

Now, there are 34 elephants at the CEC, and one on loan to the Fort Worth Zoo. Nearly all of them are about to move again.

A step closer to the wild

The transition from the CEC to the new White Oak elephant habitat poses a number of challenges. Most of these elephants are used to living in near-isolation, and none have foraged for food themselves before, Gadd says. This is why a handful of the animals—the exact number is still being determined—will remain at the CEC for the rest of their lives, though the responsibility for their well-being will be transferred from Feld to White Oak. Some of the elephants, Gadd says, simply would not do well in the new environment or are too old to move.

Rendering of planned elephant habitat at White Oak

In general, the animals are comfortable with human company and even sometimes seek it out, according to Gadd. But they are not familiar with the herd dynamics and the familial bonds that usually exist among wild Asian elephants.

Nick Newby, a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Elephant Taxon Advisory Group, has managed elephants since 2003. Newby was hired by White Oak to get to know the elephants and prepare them for life in their new home. This work, which has already started, includes slowly allowing a social hierarchy to develop through monitored group interactions and encouraging self-sufficient behavior. Feld Entertainment has been supportive, Gadd says.

“We are proud of our partnership with White Oak to transfer the elephants in our care to their facility to further expand their endangered species conservation efforts,” Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, said in a statement.

The goal is that next year, when the elephants leave the CEC, they will more easily settle into their new home and, as Gadd puts it, “live like normal elephants.” In the long-term, White Oak aims to reintroduce elephants born there into the wild, she says.

PAWS’ Stewart says that no Asian elephants have ever been successfully reintroduced to the wild, mainly because of their rapidly shrinking habitat and the complicated dynamics of “human culture and elephant culture, and where they meet.”

Stewart says he’s not sure that any elephants born in the new refuge would be able to go back to the wild. Gadd says she recognizes that the White Oak habitat, no matter how spacious it is and how well it mimics the Asian elephant’s natural habitat, does not guarantee a successful population reintroduction. It is, however, a “really important experiment about how well elephants can relearn wild behaviors,” she says.

Stewart, Gadd, the Walters, and other conservationists say much more needs to be done to conserve and protect Asian elephants, both in the U.S. and abroad. But in the meantime, Stewart says this move is worth celebrating: “There is no perfect situation in captivity, but this looks like a vast improvement for these elephants. And they deserve it.”