The first herd of 12 Asian elephants that were formerly circus performers has arrived at White Oak Conservation, a refuge for rare species in Yulee.
They will be joined by up to 20 more former circus elephants as soon as additional areas of their new forest habitat are completed.
The 12 female elephants that have already arrived range from 8- to 38-years-old. They previously traveled with Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus, which ended its use of elephants in 2017.
“We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” said Mark and Kimbra Walter, the philanthropists who fund White Oak. “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.”
To get to White Oak, the elephants were moved 200 miles in pairs in customized trucks. Throughout the journey, the elephants were accompanied by their veterinarians and animal care specialists.
Upon arrival, they were released into two large paddocks to acclimate, adjacent to a specially designed, climate-controlled barn where veterinarians and specialists monitored their health and well-being. The elephants have now ventured out of the paddocks into pine forests with ponds, wetlands and open grasslands.
White Oak Conservation continues to conduct limited scheduled tours due to the pandemic, but visitors cannot currently visit the elephants while eight additional habitats and two barns are under construction.
The area the elephants now inhabit is large enough that the elephants have various habitats and food species available. They can choose to stay near the barn and their human caregivers or wander in the woods, wallow in the mud or swim in the pond.
White Oak Conservation’s philosophy is to accommodate animals’ natural behavior and social bonds as closely as possible so family groups will be together.
This elephant group has been socialized together for the past several months, and includes two sets of full sisters and numerous half-sisters.
Nick Newby, who leads White Oak’s expert team recruited to care for the elephants, has been getting to know the individual elephants and their habits for the past few years.
“Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment,” Newby said in an email sent to WJCT News. “I was so happy to see them come out together and reassure and comfort each other, just like wild elephants do, and then head out to explore their new environment. Seeing the elephants swim for the first time was amazing.”
“Elephants are such amazing creatures and we are pleased to give them a place where they will flourish,” said Michelle Gadd, who oversees the Walters’ conservation efforts. “It’s been fascinating to see the elephants take their first steps into this beautiful natural space. We are excited to watch them adapt to the great outdoors, tasting new plants, exploring new areas, experiencing new things.”
Asian elephants are endangered in the wild. Only 30,000 to 50,000 elephants remain in the wild in less than 15% of their historic range, according to White Oak Conservation. Where they do survive, they are threatened by habitat degradation and fragmentation, conflict with humans and poaching.
“In the last few years, everything has changed for these elephants for the better — from their retirement to the way they interact with humans and the space they have to roam,” said Steve Shurter, White Oak’s executive director. “For the first time in their lives, these elephants can choose where and how they want to spend their days.”