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From the ring to the refuge: Elephants moving to Northeast Florida

The first wave of elephants is expected to arrive at White Oak Conservation in 2021

From the ring to the refuge: Elephants moving to Northeast Florida
From the ring to the refuge: Elephants moving to Northeast Florida

YULEE, Fla. – After spending years on the road, an elephant herd is getting a new home with plenty of space to roam.

Crews at White Oak Conservation, a wildlife refuge in Nassau County, have begun building a new 2,500-acre habitat for the 34 Asian elephants, many of which traveled the country with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, before their acts were retired in 2016.

“Elephants are majestic and intelligent animals, and they are in dire need,” owner Kimbra Walter who, along with her husband Mark, purchased the 17,000-acre property in 2013. “For too long, humans have decimated the native habitats, poached and removed these animals from their natural home.”

Dr. Michelle Gadd, an ecologist and chief of conservation for White Oak, said creating the habitat will be a process. The goal is to give the elephants all the space and resources they need to enjoy their retirement.

“As you can imagine, it’s a challenge to feed and house 34 Asian elephants,” Gadd said. "So it’s taken us a bit of time to get the appropriate design and make sure that we have everything in order to welcome them there. But we have now broken ground on their area.”

Plans for the elephants' home include access to nine interconnected areas of the property with a range of habitats, from wetlands to meadows. Crews are also building 11 new water holes large enough for the elephants to frolic in, along with three new barns outfitted with state-of-the-art veterinary equipment.

“So that these animals, some of which are more on the elderly side, if they have any vital veterinary needs they can be, they can be treated there," Gadd said.

The elephants, 19 of which were born in the U.S., will move into their new home once it’s completed, with the first group expected to arrive at White Oak in 2021.

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

As part of the project, the wildlife refuge has brought in a team of experts to look after the elephants. Led by Nick Newby, who has nearly two decades' experience managing elephants, this team will take charge of designing the new habitat and overseeing the elephants' care.

While the new habitat will provide plenty of space for the elephants to roam and forage, the goal is to keep elephants' familial and social bonds intact. Meaning, mothers and calves or siblings will be placed in the same areas when possible.

An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants, which are classified as an endangered species, remain in the wild, Gadd said. She said these elephants only cover a small fraction of their historic range.

“Where they do survive, they continue to be threatened by habitat degradation and fragmentation, conflict with humans, and poaching,” Gadd said.

The move has the backing of Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld called White Oak one of the most well-respected conservation groups in the world and voiced his support for the effort.

“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,” Feld said.

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