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Retired circus elephants get new home at northeastern Florida refuge

Most of the elephants traveled with Ringling Bros. or Barnum & Bailey circuses before they were retired in 2016.
Credit: White Oak Conservation
Elephants Kelly Ann (L) and Mable (R)

POLK COUNTY, Fla. — Thirty Asian elephants in Polk County will soon have a new home in northeastern Florida. 

Construction has started at White Oak Conservation to build a new 2,500-acre home for the elephants. The refuge, located in Yulee, is owned by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter. 

The refuge says the first of those elephants should begin to arrive in the new habitat starting in 2021. 

Most of the elephants used to travel across the U.S. with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses until they were retired in 2016. After that, they were relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County.

“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. “White Oak is one of the world’s most well-respected conservation organizations, and we know their dedicated staff will continue to care for these magnificent elephants for years to come.”

Eventually, the soon-to-be-built habitat will "accommodate [the elephants'] 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."

“Our family is committed to improving the lives of individual elephants and ensuring the survival of elephants in the wild," Mark Kimbra said. 

The new habitat will have "nine interlinked areas" open for the elephants, in which eleven waterholes will be built, deep enough for them to "splash and frolic in." Three barns will also be suited to the elephants' needs and will have high-tech veterinary equipment.

Nineteen of the 30 elephants were born in the U.S., according to a press release.

“Asian elephants are endangered in the wild,” explained Michelle Gadd, Ph.D. “Only 30,000 to 50,000 elephants remain in the wild in less than 15% of their historic range. Where they do survive, they continue to be threatened by habitat degradation and fragmentation, conflict with humans, and poaching.” 

White Oak says it has hired team of experts to design the habitat and care for the elephants. The team's leader is Nick Newby, who has managed elephants since 2003, a press release says. He is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Elephant Taxon Advisory Group and an instructor in the AZA's Principles of Elephant Management program.

According to the press release, "Walter Conservation is committed to bringing elephant education and awareness to the next generation of conservationists through its world-class educational and training programs, in person and remotely. In 2019, more than 1,600 students visited White Oak and participated in education programming." 

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