Former Circus Elephants Find Refuge at North Florida Animal Sanctuary

A group of Asian elephants that were once a part of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus have begun relocating to their retirement home in north Florida.

On Monday, 12 female elephants, ranging in age from 8 to 38, arrived at their new forest habitat at White Oak Conservation, a refuge for rare species located north of Jacksonville and just south of the Florida-Georgia line, according to a press release.

At least 20 more former circus elephants are expected to arrive at the refuge soon, White Oak officials said.

"We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore," said philanthropists and White Oak founders Mark and Kimbra Walter. "We are working to protect wild animals in their native habitats. But for these elephants that can't be released, we are pleased to give them a place where they can live comfortably for the rest of their lives."

According to CBS News, elephant attractions were a staple at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for most of its 146-year history. But after a public outcry over what many said was animal cruelty, the attractions were retired in 2016.

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After leaving the circus, the White Oak elephants were first taken to a preserve south of Orlando. Soon after, a nonprofit called the Walter Conservation bought the elephants and began construction on the animals' sanctuary home, CBS News reported.

The goal is to move all of the elephants purchased by the Water Conservation to White Oak. The animals that have already arrived at the refuge traveled 200 miles to the sanctuary in customized trucks. According to White Oak officials, the elephants were accompanied by their veterinarians and animal care specialists on the trip.

The 12 elephants newly moved to White Oak were released into two large paddocks — next to a specially designed, climate-controlled barn — upon their arrival. The elephants have since ventured out into the refuge's pine forests, per officials.

Nick Newby, who has led the team caring for these elephants for years, called the animals' arrival at their new habitat "an incredible moment."

 "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," said Newby. "Seeing the elephants swim for the first time was amazing."

White Oak officials said that the elephants have plenty of food available at their new habitat and are able to stay near the barn and their human caregivers, or wander into the woods, wallow in the mud, and swim in the pond

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Asian elephants are endangered in the wild, with roughly 30,000 to 50,000 of the species remaining, according to White Oak officials.

The species is threatened by habitat degradation and fragmentation, conflict with humans, and poaching.

White Oak Conservation was established in 1982 and has been expanded to roughly 17,000 acres. In addition to elephants, the refuge is home to rhinoceros, okapi, bongos, Dama gazelles and cheetahs.

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