POLK COUNTY, Fla. – Twelve performing elephants with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus are set to retire to the Center for Elephant Conservation by 2018.
There are 28 Asian elephants living at the facility currently. It is the largest herd of Asian elephants on the western hemisphere. That number is expected to grow in the next couple of years.
The circus announced in March it is phasing out the iconic elephant act by 2018, citing growing public concern about the animals' treatment. The performance has been showcased for more than a century.
The 12 elephants currently on tour will retire to the center located in Polk City where handlers focus on research, reproduction, and retirement.
"Because they're trained, because we handle them and can go right up to them and touch them, it gives us the opportunity to learn more than we could from a distance with just cameras," Janice Aria, the director of animal stewardship at the center, said.
More than a dozen handlers feed, exercise, bathe, and check the elephants' health everyday. Aria says it costs $70,000 a year per elephant to take care of them.
"We have to contribute to their survival. Man has to care for these animals because the wild that we all want to envision has dimished to the point of non-existence," Aria said. "We have to continue to educate ourselves about these animals and then continue to care for them and to keep the species going."
The center also conducts research to save the animal from extinction.
"We're trying to preserve an endangered species and our goal is to preserve their genetics for as long as possible," Dr. Wendy Kiso, the conservation and research scientist with the center said.
One of their most recent research studies is on the elephants' blood. Scientists are trying to figure out why they have a smaller chance of developing cancer compared to humans.
"There's a high instance of cancer in humans, so you would think that elephants are hundreds times the size of humans, so you would think their instance is 100 times more, but the fact is not," Kiso said.
The center partnered with the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah to study a gene that is more prevalent in elephants than humans. They think that could be the answer.
"We're studying their blood to figure out how this gene works, the mechanism behind it, that way we can somehow study to produce some kind of vaccine, or magic pill to speak, to reduce cancer in kids," Kiso said.