White Oak Conservation has started construction on a new 2,500-acre home for Asian elephants. Most of these elephants previously traveled throughout the United States with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® until they were retired in 2016.
Thirty elephants will be released in the northeastern Florida refuge, owned by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter, as soon as it is ready. The first arrivals are expected in 2021. (Photos of some of the elephants can be accessed here and a video rendering of the new habitat can be found on YouTube. Credit: White Oak Conservation)
“Elephants are majestic and intelligent animals, and they are in dire need,” Kimbra Walter said. “For too long, humans have decimated the native habitats, poached, and removed these animals from their natural home.”
Mark Walter added, “Our family is committed to improving the lives of individual elephants and ensuring the survival of elephants in the wild.”
Within White Oak Conservation’s 17,000 acres, nine interlinked areas will be opened for the elephants. The area will include a variety of vegetation and habitat types for the elephants to choose from, including wetlands, meadows, and woods.
The spacious habitats will give the elephants room to wander, exercise and forage. White Oak’s philosophy is to accommodate 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.
Eleven waterholes will be built, each wide and deep enough for the elephants to splash and frolic in. Three barns will be built within the complex specifically to suit the elephants’ needs. These facilities will be easily accessible to the elephants and equipped with high-tech veterinary equipment.
White Oak has recruited an expert team to design the habitat and to care for the elephants. Nick Newby, who has managed elephants since 2003, leads the team. He is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Elephant Taxon Advisory Group and is an instructor in the AZA’s Principles of Elephant Management program.
“AZA strongly supports White Oak Conservation’s efforts on behalf of elephants,” said Dan Ashe, President and CEO of AZA. “By providing these elephants the space to explore, to interact with one another, and to engage in natural behaviors, they are being given a key element in animal welfare and wellness — choice.”
Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®, supports the move to the new location and has provided food, care, and expertise throughout the transition. Feld Entertainment has been committed to the care and conservation of the endangered Asian elephant since the company was founded in 1967.
In 1995, that commitment was expanded through the founding of the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation® in Polk County, Fla. After the removal of the elephants from the show in 2016, the company continued to care for all the elephants located at the Center and also worked with other conservation organizations to share years of knowledge and expertise to help save this endangered species for future generations.
“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.”
Nineteen of the elephants were born in the United States.
“Asian elephants are endangered in the wild,” explained Michelle Gadd, Ph.D., who leads the Walters’ global conservation efforts. “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.”
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.
“It is exciting to see these elephants transition into their new home while continuing their strong history as ambassadors for their wild cousins,” said Deborah Olson, executive director of the International Elephant Foundation. “White Oak’s commitment to conservation and animal care makes it the perfect forever home for this herd. The International Elephant Foundation looks forward to working with White Oak to improve the quality of life and viability of elephant populations everywhere.”
ABOUT WALTER CONSERVATION AND WHITE OAK
White Oak, which is a part of Walter Conservation, is a one-of-a-kind center for conservation. With 17,000 acres in northeastern Florida, it has long been dedicated to the conservation and care of endangered and threatened species, including rhinoceroses, okapis, bongos, zebras, dama gazelles, and cheetahs.
White Oak partners with wildlife agencies here and abroad. In the United States, White Oak collaborates with federal and state agencies on species recovery and release efforts for Florida panthers, Florida grasshopper sparrows, Mississippi sandhill cranes, and whooping cranes. In addition to native species, eighteen endangered and critically endangered species have a safe haven in spacious, natural enclosures at White Oak.
Through Walter Conservation, the Walter family conserves rare species and wild places around the world. Efforts include improving the quality of life of individual animals, recovering rare species, restoring ecosystems and protecting wilderness areas.
Thus far, their philanthropy supports several areas in North America and Africa, protecting important wild populations of African elephants, rhinos, lions, and many other species. The Walter Conservation approach is to protect and preserve large wild areas, provide wildlife security and management, to collaborate with local residents and host-country governments, and to invest in sustainable enterprises.
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