Some kids dream of running away to join the circus—while the Ringling Bros. elephants that had been performing every night might have been dreaming about a place like this, a dream that is now coming true.
35 Asian pachyderms formerly under the care of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are being welcomed to a 2500-acre Florida reserve where they can wander among their favorite habitats—wetlands, grasslands, or forest—and splash about in 11 different waterholes.
The White Oak Conservation refuge, located in Yulee, was set up to accommodate the about-to-be retired elephants in what will become the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere.
The 4-square-mile refuge is the best scenario for these elephants because they’ve been raised in captivity and are not equipped to survive in the wild.
“We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” said philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter, whose family-based charity organization, TWF, is the driving force behind the project.
“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,” TWF’s Michelle Gadd explained in an interview with National Geographic.
After a period spent socializing to catch them up on herd and family dynamics, the first group of elephants was transported in pairs for the 200-mile journey from the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC) in Polk County, Florida, to their new home.
They got their first peak at the sanctuary on May 3, and will be joined by another group of 20 due to arrive in the near future.
“Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment,” said White Oaks’ elephant care lead Nick Newby. “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,” added Gadd, who oversees the Walters’ conservation efforts.
“We are excited to watch them adapt to the great outdoors, tasting new plants, exploring new areas, experiencing new things.”
And—for the elephants—waking up each morning in retirement is a dream that we can all get behind.