On a cool, late autumn morning in Florida, 10-year-old African elephant Tufani is happily chomping on a pile of hay, his low-bass purrs rippling through the midday air. Across the field, Thandi, his 8,200-pound “auntie,” spies him and picks up her pace, heading in his direction.
With a white egret in tow, Thandi closes in on Tufani, who defers to the matriarch of the family herd and abandons the hay pile – but not before grabbing a bunch with his trunk and making off for a spot near the lip of a pond.
Of the four elephants living at the new National Elephant Center in the east-central Florida town of Fellsmere, Thandi is known by caretakers as “boss lady.” And when it comes time for her to give the final nudge to the rambunctious teenage Tufani to leave the herd and seek his independence, there should be plenty of room here for him to find it.
The nonprofit center, which opened in May 2013 after years of planning by a national consortium of accredited zoos, spans 225 acres in the middle of 12,000 acres of orange groves. Leased from a private land owner for $1 a year for 40 years, the center intends to help manage the continent’s population of African and Asian elephants, as well as provide care and a final home for aging or ailing pachyderms.
“Not only do we provide a good home for elephants, but we provide a future for elephants,” says John Lehnhardt, the center’s volunteer executive director.
The opening of the center comes at a time when forest elephants in Africa are under severe threat of extinction, possibly within 10 years, due to their mass slaughter by poachers for ivory tusks to sell in a voracious and illegal global market.
Conservation groups now say that more than 30,000 African elephants are killed every year because of the illicit ivory trade.
The four resident elephants at the center are a family unit that came from Disney’s Animal Kingdom to make room for the expanding herd. The two adult females, Thandi and Moyo, were orphaned as babies in Zimbabwe when their families were killed during a herd culling, Lehnhardt said.
They were sent to a zoo in Washington state and then to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1997. The two females bonded early in life, and when Moyo had her two calves – first Tufani and now 5-year-old Tsavo – Thandi became the herd-leading disciplinary “auntie” common in matriarchal multigenerational elephant herds, which are made up of adult females and calves. The adult females are protective of the younger elephants and eventually push out the adolescent males, who then seek and establish their own territory and mates.
The center has the space to keep the herd together while going through this transition, with its five habitats of five acres each that eventually can be combined as needed. Meandering zones of up to 40 acres each also are being planned.
“They need space and then they integrate,” says Lehnhardt, who has worked with elephants for almost four decades, including with Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where he developed and oversaw the elephant program and was head of animal operations.
The four elephants at the center spend most of their days and nights in one of the fenced habitats, wandering through irrigation ditches, frolicking in the ponds, eating any of the hundreds of species of plants on the property. Upon their arrival the previous spring, they discovered the oranges on the trees and began devouring them, pulling them from the tall branches with their trunks and shoving them into their mouths.
“They went crazy over the oranges,” Lehnhardt says. In the mornings, the elephants are often waiting at the gate to come in from their habitat for their morning baths and medical checks, which is when they get a breakfast of hay, plus grain pellet treats.
On this morning, two elephant care staff members open the gates and invite the elephants into the open barn made of galvanized steel with sliding gates. The barn cost $1.5 million to build, and Lehnhardt envisions constructing a total of five barns once the center raises the funds.
When it’s her turn for her bath, Moyo watches with deep brown eyes framed by long lashes as Scott Krug steers the hose over her chest and belly from the other side of the steel gate. She purrs a deep, reverberating trill while chewing her treats, a reward for following verbal cues to turn to another side for washing, or to bend on her knees so the staff can check and wash her back. While Krug washes and gently scrubs Moyo with a brush through the gate, Mike Tanton reinforces his verbal cues with a clicker that signals more food is on the way.
“All right, Moyo,” Tanton encourages, telling her she’s a good girl. No bull hooks are used here on the elephants, Lehnhardt stresses, only positive reinforcement with food.
This brief interaction every morning through the gate barriers also gives the staff a chance to check on the elephants’ health and any abnormal conditions that might need veterinary care.
When it’s Thandi’s turn for a bath, she opens her mouth and allows Jeff Bolling to reach up through the gate to scratch her tongue as he takes a look inside. Bolling, the center’s chief operations officer who has built up a strong bond of trust with Thandi after working with her for 15 years at Disney, playfully rubs the end of the inside of her trunk, which Thandi has stretched through the gate.
With all the elephants cleaned and checked, the gates to one of the habitats is opened and the elephants head back out until the following morning – first Tufani, so he can get a running start on Thandi, then Moyo, with the youngest calf, Tsavo – known by the staff as the “mama’s boy” – running behind.
The females in the herd will never be separated and could very well “be here the rest of their lives,” Lehnhardt says. “The best life for a female elephant is to live in a multigenerational social setting.”
The males could also end up staying their whole lives or go back to Disney’s Animal Kingdom or another zoo as breeding bulls, depending on population needs, he says.
Eventually, the center will be able to hold up to 45 elephants: those coming for short-term care while zoos reorder space for renovations or breeding; and those who will make the center a permanent home.
The center is not officially a sanctuary because of such potential movement and breeding programs, and will not be open to the general public, but will hold educational and specially planned visits.
The center’s main mission is the long-term health and viability of the elephant population, Lehnhardt says.
“The ones we have might be some of the last ones there are,” he says.
If you go…
The National Elephant Center is located on 225 acres surrounded by citrus groves in the rural city of Fellsmere, near Florida’s central east coast about 90 miles southeast of Orlando. The nonprofit center is not open to the general public but offers educational programs and special visits with plans to develop an observation deck, where students and special guests will be able to see and learn about the elephants’ habitats. For more information, call the center’s executive director, John Lehnhardt at (772) 202-8875 or visit the center’s website at www.nationalelephantcenter.org.