The concept of sanctuary for captive elephants is far less than ordinary, it invokes many questions and sometimes doubts. Some are relatively simple while other such as “what is the process of recovery?” are much more complex. All are important questions, so we’re dedicating this page to address your questions and help provide as much clarity as possible. If you have any further questions or require more clarification, please feel free to ask. You are certainly not the only one wondering the same thing. Please reach out to us at contact@GlobalElephants.org
Throughout these questions we will refer to our model sanctuaries, these are primarily what we’ve learned from our development of and work at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and discussions and reports from Performing Animal Welfare Society in California and Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. As we launch our pilot project in South America, Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, it is a new and foreign thought to many, but it’s not an experiment. We have proven models of tremendous success. When Scott cofounded The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, it was the first of it’s kind. They didn’t know what to expect, but they knew elephants needed more than what captivity offered at the time. Now, we can say without a doubt, that sanctuary works for everyone: the elephants, the community, the habitat and the wildlife. Sanctuary is a true win-win!
Q. Where will the Elephants come from?
A. All of the elephants that will move to Elephant Sanctuary Brazil will come from captivity. They will be elephants that have spent their lives in zoos and circuses from throughout South America, Latin America and possibly beyond. Virtually all of these elephants were wild caught, captured as infants, packed into crates and shipped to zoos and circuses, where they have spent a lifetime of inherent neglect. Sanctuary is about letting them have as close to a normal life as possible in captivity.
Q. Why keep them at sanctuary, why not send them back to the wild to be rehabilitated into their natural world?
A. There are many reasons why returning elephants back to the wild is not feasible:
Q. Elephants are not native to Brazil, isn’t dangerous to introduce them into the wild, isn’t there a risk to the natural balance of nature?
A. It is vital to remember that we are not introducing them to the wilds of Brazil. The sanctuary is fully enclosed and managed, to keep elephants in and to prevent intrusion from people on the outside. We will not be breeding the elephants, so the elephant population at the sanctuary will remain controlled.
Q. How will the sanctuary be funded?
A. The organizations involved are all funded entirely through private donations from the public, foundations and corporations. We will not receive state or federal funding.
Q. Will the sanctuary be open to the public?
A. The simple answer: no. Visitation is something we have discussed at length. We would like to allow limited visitation, but we need to ensure it has minimal impact on the elephants. There is so much emotional healing that needs to take place at sanctuary; there are elephants with deep-seated insecurities and trust issues. Having people that the elephants don’t know, close to them, can be an issue for some. Some elephants wouldn’t be affected at all, but with elephants at sanctuary, we often plan for the worst and hope for the best. In other words, we have to plan for the one elephant that may take a step backwards in their healing if people they don’t know are close to them, because that is the elephant that will need the most help and have the toughest journey of recovery. This is their home and they truly have to feel, that for the first time in their life, it is all about them. They are no longer on display or need to perform.
That being said, we also know the benefit of having people able to see elephants in a natural habitat, the feeling that comes from being in their presence, and the bond that can form. With the layout of the property, we should be able to do some sort of observation deck or building at the top of a big hill along the border, looking down into the valleys where the elephants will be. There will be no guarantee you will see an elephant, but that is only because they will be doing whatever it is they choose to be doing at that moment. For now, our thought is to allow very small groups (the energy of a loud crowd is distracting, even at a distance) and it will be done from a large distance and on a limited basis. For us personally, taking into consideration what elephants have shown us in the past, this is what we see as the best solution to protect their privacy and space, yet allow for educational groups, researchers and a few select others to get a glimpse of what their life is like when allowed to roam on 2800 acres in Brazil. Our first priority is getting things built and ready for elephants, next we worry about getting the elephants here and comfortable, and through this process we’ll further evaluate how to best accommodate isolated and limited groups in a way that is beneficial and respectful for everyone.
We are also planning on having a camera system in the future, but due to cost, and creating areas for the elephants being the priority, that will not happen initially.
Q. Will the elephants destroy the habitat?
A. No they will not destroy the habitat. Based on our model sanctuaries, we know that the elephants will bring a positive impact, actually promoting increased diversity of both flora and fauna. It is important to consider several key factors that minimize or eliminate this concern:
Q. How will the elephants impact the wildlife?
A. Elephants are a peaceable species; they are neither predator nor prey to any animals that reside in Brazil. They will cohabitate seamlessly. In fact, based on our model sanctuaries, there will likely be an increase in fauna as some animals will be attracted to the residual grains and fruit that the elephants leave behind after their supplemental meals. Insects attracted to their dung, as well as undigested seeds, which also attract several small mammals and birds. The sanctuary also becomes a safe zone for species that are hunted by humans.
Q. Will this create an issue with high population density of native wildlife trapped in the fence?
A. The fence is designed with strategic areas to allow the natural migration of wildlife. Some small mammals will simply dig under the perimeter security fence, birds will of course fly freely in an out, and some feline species and primates will use the tree canopy to traverse the perimeter.
Q. Who provides the care for the abused and mistreated elephants?
A. The elephants are cared for and looked after by trained and experienced care staff who live on grounds 24 hours per day. For our pilot project, GSE directors Scott and Kat Blais, have move to Brazil to oversee the development, operation, staff training and elephant care. These two elephant care specialist bring years of knowledge and experience with sanctuary design and operation, captive elephant care and recovery and veterinary care.
Q. How do you aid the rehabilitation of the elephants?
A. This is a complex and multifaceted question. Let me first say that elephants, like people, are individuals. They respond to crisis, trauma and life challenges differently. Some will manifest stress and anxiety physically, developing ulcers or immune system compromise, while others will develop behavioral issues, exhibiting stereotypical neurotic or repetitive patterns of swaying or even self-mutilation or aggression. Others withdraw deeply inward, essentially tuning out the stress of their captive confines. Recovery for each of these elephants is different. The first step for all of them is to create an environment that meets their innate needs and provides them with autonomy and the opportunity to feel that they have some control over their own lives. We then have to establish trust and we must let them know that we respect and appreciate them for who they are as an individual. With trust, they learn that they can express themselves freely, through positive or negative behavior, without punishment. From decades in captivity, all of these three primary factors have been suppressed. Some elephants forget how to express joy or anger, mostly because they learned that their emotional expression didn’t matter, nothing changed. When living the life of a circus elephant, any expression of negative behavior is immediately painfully punished. In zoos the environments are starved for stimulation, causing a lack of emotional response because everything is the same, for decades. With autonomy, trust and communication, elephants start to express who they are, allowing us to see their likes and dislikes, further enhancing our relationship and our ability to provide them lifelong medical care. For each elephant this process is different, there is no one absolute formula or approach that works for all. There is however one factor that is pivotal to expedited recovery; the presence of other elephants – they can provide each other with a degree of nurturing and empathy that no human could possibly replace.
Q. Does the project intend to build a veterinary hospital for the elephants?
A. We will construct open-sided medical care centers throughout the habitat. These will contain areas for critical care medical treatment and protected contact training walls. These areas will allow the elephants to be conditioned through positive reinforcement in a manner that protects the care staff from physical injury, while allowing the best care possible.
Q. If the elephants can’t be rehabilitated, what is the procedure?
A. Based on the dozens of elephants that our specialist have worked with, some that were considered among the most aggressive and most tragic cases in the US, all elephants will recover. For some, this process occurs seemingly overnight, while others can take years to fully trust humans and even trust themselves. Through this process they are offered expansive space, autonomy and access to other elephants, as these are critical to the recovery of every elephant.
Q. Are there separate containment areas, in the event that some elephants don’t get along with others while they readjust?
A. The sanctuary is designed and constructed for the worst-case scenario. Elements are designed that may rarely or possibly never be used, but they are available if needed. Each habitat, for the various species and sexes, will have subdivided enclosures, allowing flexibility for facility and habitat management and separating groups of elephants if their behavior dictates.
Q. How do new elephants interact with one another considering that most have not had extensive social experience with other elephants?
A. The very core nature of elephants is that they are highly social beings. Most, even those that lived alone for decades, adapt seamlessly to a social environment. Sanctuary, while complex due to the intricacies of the species and trauma of captivity, is fundamentally simple. It provides the protection, space and autonomy that allows elephants to be elephants. Some elephants may need a little space and time before fully integrating with others; the facility design permits this while our expert caretakers employ techniques to help elephants fully adjust to their new life.
Q. Will different species occupy the same space?
A. Our facility is designed to keep the two primary groups of Asian and African elephants separate. While they have been known to occasionally get along in captivity, there are vast social, behavioral and communication differences between these species. For their recovery and comfort, and to allow them to live as close to a natural herd dynamic as possible, the two groups will be managed separately.
Q. What is the number of animals that the Elephant Sanctuary Brazil plans to manage?
A. There are a little more than 50 elephants in South America. While we know that not all of these will come to live at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, the space and facility design could accommodate all of these elephants. As for the exact number, we are here to help as many as we can and to care for any elephant in need of sanctuary. Circuses will soon be banned throughout most of the continent, some zoos are facing budget crises and are housing rapidly aging elephants with increased health complications. Elephant Sanctuary Brazil has the space, knowledge and direct experience to provide critical and long-term care for any elephant.
Q. Why Brazil?
A. Presently there are 11 states in Brazil that have banned the use of performing elephants and there is a national ban in the legislative process. In South America, 5 countries have passed similar bans and two more countries will soon follow. Not only will these displaced circus elephants need somewhere to go but several zoos are also looking for assistance. With budget cuts and ailing elephants and most zoos having grossly limited space available, there are a few already reaching out for a solution. On top of that, the active regulatory agency needs a viable, healthy alternative where they can place elephants confiscated from dire conditions.
Q. How does the climate in the region of Elephant Sanctuary Brazil compare to that of wild habitats for African and Asian elephants.
A. The climate is ideal! It is beautiful spring and fall like temperatures year round with warm days and fresh cool nights, and temperature ranges well within the normal limits for both species. One of the great benefits of this climate is that we won’t need elaborate barns and the elephants will never need to be closed inside. This greatly reduces our operating and development expenses, but more importantly it provides the elephants with year-round outdoor living.
Q. How do elephants adapt to Sanctuary, with open spaces, other elephants and learning to graze for much of their diet?
A. Many elephants adapt seamlessly. Some are occasionally a little nervous for a few days, but without exception, they all meld into their new world. This is not surprising as we are simply providing a space for them to be able to live and act as a normal elephant would. Sanctuary returns them to a more natural state of living. It has been observed that aggressive elephants become passive and solitary elephants become social. In one instance, an elephant that was labeled by the zoo she lived at as antisocial, a killer and autistic, was anything but those things. Within 2 years at sanctuary she was gentle, cooperative and even developed into a leader and mentor for other herd members. With regard to foraging, there is nothing more natural than an elephant eating grass. For some elephants this is the first time they have ever walked on grass, which sometimes causes them to pause just for a second, but they all immediately start to eat it. This is something that all elephants know how to do; it is not a learned behavior.
Q. What is the diet for the Elephants? Is it just what they find themselves or will they have supplements or food provided by caretakers?
A. The primary food source will be native and cultivated grasses. Some elephants will eat tree branches (primarily African elephants) all will be supplemented daily with fruits, vegetables, grains, nutritional and digestive aids as well as medications prescribed by our extensive veterinary team. The exact volume of supplementation will vary with the health of the individual and availability of pasture grasses for grazing. It is vital for the elephant’s recovery and return to a more natural state of living, to provide ample space to graze and forage as they would in the wild for up to 20 hours each day. This slow methodical grazing and searching for the most palatable grasses, provides psychological stimulation, allowing their bodies to return to a natural way of functioning, improving GI health and adequate wear on their molars. GI health compromise and malocclusion of their molars are two of the top factors that negatively impact captive elephant health. As proven by our model sanctuaries, returning the elephants to a natural diet and method of ingestion has an immediate positive impact on their health.
Q. How are the elephants contained on the property?
A. The entire area will be fenced with a double fence system. Steel pipe corrals are designed to keep the elephants safely inside and a perimeter security fence will keep the public from invading the elephants’ space. To allow for the natural migration of wildlife, strategic areas will be chosen to install a modified fence system, permitting pass through without compromising the safety of the elephants.
Q. (from a Brazilian) This is a new project with many considerations, what type of preparation, planning and studies have taken place?
A. While this project is new to many, it has been years in planning and preparation. As mentioned above, one of the key members of our team helped to pioneer this model of successful elephant care in 1995. With 3 sanctuary models, each with more than 20 years of tremendous success, we have a strong basis for our facility design, development and long-term operation. Scott Blais, the CEO of Global Sanctuary for Elephants, has more than 25 years of experience and has worked with more than 50 captive elephants. This direct experience of working with captive elephants, combined with his knowledge of Sanctuary development and operation, creates a wealth of knowledge and experience that will be applied to Elephant Sanctuary Brazil. We are also grateful and deeply fortunate to have notable and renowned expert Dr. Joyce Poole, cofounder of ElephantVoices. Joyce has lived with and studied elephants in Africa for more than 40 years. Her encyclopedic knowledge of wild elephant behavior is invaluable to our operations. It will ensure that the innate and natural life of elephants is respected and honored while also taking into account the compromises caused by captivity.
Q. What can be done? How can we help?
A. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi “The only possible revolution is inside us.” We all have to start to live smarter, consume less and think about the impact of all life that we share our fragile planet with. We can all make a difference with our daily actions and living a more conscious and empathetic life. To help elephants, donate, share our work and help to educate others. We are the ones that have brought elephants into captivity, we need to be the ones to give back, to return their dignity and provide them with a life worth living.