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Largest Elephant Herd In Western Hemisphere Coming To White Oak In Yulee

A signature piece of “The Greatest Show On Earth” is being retired to White Oak Conservation in Nassau County.

Thirty Asian elephants, most from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, are expected to begin arriving in the Yulee area in the first quarter of 2021 as White Oak builds a 2,500-acre habitat for them.

Once the habitat is finished and all the elephants arrive, it will be the largest elephant herd in the Western Hemisphere, according to White Oak.

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The circus stopped its elephant performances in 2016. The decision to retire the elephant shows came after years of growing public concern for the elephants' wellbeing. Activists criticized Ringling for forcing intelligent animals that, in the wild, sustain complex social relationships, to live in captivity and isolation.

Related: Ringling Bros. Circus Holds Final Shows Featuring Elephants

Since then, the elephants have been cared for at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Fla.

“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,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which is the parent company of the circus.

White Oak Conservation is comprised of 17,000 acres. Within that space, nine interlinked areas will be opened for the elephants. The area will include a variety of vegetation and habitat types for the elephants to choose from, including wetlands, meadows, and woods. 

The habitats will give the elephants room to wander, exercise and forage. White Oak said its philosophy is to accommodate natural behavior and social bonds as closely as possible. Family groups will be together, with calves and their mothers and siblings in the same areas as grandmothers wherever possible.

Eleven waterholes will be built, each wide and deep enough for the elephants to splash and frolic. Three barns will be built within the complex for the elephants’ needs. The facilities will be equipped with high-tech veterinary equipment.

Nineteen of the elephants coming to White Oak were born in the U.S.

“Asian elephants are endangered in the wild,” said Michelle Gadd, who leads White Oak's global conservation efforts. “Only 30,000 to 50,000 elephants remain in the wild in less than 15% of their historic range.

The cost of the project hasn’t been announced, but Gadd said, “This is being made possible by the generosity of the Mark and Kimbra Walter family,” who own White Oak.

Planning is still underway for moving the elephants, but Gadd told WJCT News they will probably be moved in batches of between six and 10 at a time in specially customized trucks, which the elephants are accustomed to.

“We’re trying to move them in socially bonded groups, so that we minimize the stress, and so they’re already comfortable with their girlfriends, or whoever it is they’re traveling with,” Gadd explained.

The elephants moving to Nassau County range in age from 8- to 64 years old. The oldest elephant in the group, who is 75, will be staying behind in Polk County.

“We just feel that’s probably too much information for her to take on at this stage in her life,” said Gadd.

Asian elephants have lifespans that are similar to humans but Gadd said due to poaching and environmental threats, it’s rare to see them live their full lifespans in the wild.

A viewing area into a portion of the habitat is also planned, but it will not be opened right away.

“We're very intent on giving these elephants a chance to settle in and relax completely chill out before we give them a new a new variable, which is the introduction of visitors,” said Gadd.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which fought to end elephant performances, applauded the decision to build the habitat, saying in a statement to WJCT News: “PETA is delighted to close the book on Ringling's abuse of the remaining elephants from its long-closed traveling shows. The animals will soon roam thousands of natural acres at White Oak Conservation and never suffer in chains or be beaten with bullhooks again.”

White Oak, which is a part of Walter Conservation, cares for endangered and threatened species, including rhinoceroses, okapis, bongos, zebras, Dama gazelles and cheetahs. It partners with wildlife agencies in Florida, the U.S. and abroad.

Among its efforts have been the recovery and release of Florida panthers, Florida grasshopper sparrows, Mississippi sandhill cranes and whooping cranes.

White Oak is open to the public by reservation. It’s located near the Florida-Georgia line, west of U.S. 17 and Interstate 95.

Limited private tours can be reserved at 904-225-3396 or emailing info@white-oak.org. Additional information is available on White Oak’s website.

Bill Bortzfield can be reached at bbortzfield@wjct.org or on Twitter at @BortzInJax.