Pachyderms have returned to the treasure coast for the first time since the end of the Ice Age. This week The National Elephant Center’s board members and staff proudly welcomed four African elephants to Fellsmere. The family group, consisting of two females and two males, are the professional elephant care facility’s first residents. The Center’s mission is focused on advancing the care of elephants in North America.
“We’re thrilled to welcome the first elephants to The National Elephant Center,” said Keith Winsten, The Center’s board chair and executive director of the Brevard Zoo. “We’ll provide these animals and those that arrive in the future with the highest quality of animal care, inspired by our deep love of elephants.”
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Elephant Species Survival Program (SSP) supported the animals’ move to The Center. Elephants are endangered species — according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is considered Vulnerable and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is Endangered. Therefore the SSP carefully manages the population in accredited North American zoos to ensure individuals are part of healthy social groupings and to safeguard their health and well-being. Previously the four animals lived at an AZA-accredited facility in central Florida.
As many as five more elephants could join the herd as the barn has capacity for nine animals though no additional elephants are confirmed. The Center could some day care for dozens of elephants as additional barns and habitats are completed on the 225-acre (≈ 90 hectare) site. The first phase of development saw the completion of a large barn with paddocks, a keeper work center and four interconnected pastures that provide the elephants more than 20 acres (≈ 8 hectare) to roam. Each pasture includes watering holes, mud wallows, dust bathing areas, shade and other natural features used by elephants.
Florida’s ancient history with pachyderms
The new elephants aren’t the first pachyderms to call the area home. In 2011 researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Florida announced the discovery of a bone fragment found to be 13,000 years old. The bone features an incised image of a mammoth or mastodon — the first of its kind found in the Americas. Discovered by a fossil hunter in Vero Beach, the bone was found near a location known as the “Old Vero Site” where human bones and extinct Ice Age animals were excavated beginning one hundred years ago.
Mammoths and mastodons once roamed throughout North America including Florida, serving the same ecological niche as their modern day African and Asian counterparts. Though once widespread, a changing climate and growing population of humans who hunted the animals eradicated the species from the continent not long after the engraving would have been made.
Closed facilities but engaging with the public
Though not open to the public, The Center’s plans to develop opportunities for local school children to visit and learn about elephants, which are critically endangered. Limited opportunities for donors and members of the public to visit at select times are also in development.
“We’re extremely proud of The National Elephant Center and the care we provide. We want to share our love of elephants with the community and help foster greater appreciation for these incredible animals,” said Lehnhardt. “We encourage everyone to follow updates on our blog and stay updated to learn more about how you can support elephant care.”
A collaborative effort from more than 70 AZA-accredited zoos that care for elephants, The National Elephant Center is a new model supporting excellence in elephant care. The Center’s mission is to improve the elephant population’s long-term viability and welfare by promoting excellence in elephant care and management. To accomplish this The Center collaborates with AZA-accredited zoos and other professional elephant organisations, experts and advocates; brings a scientific approach to husbandry research, professional training and elephant reproduction; and always provides exceptional care inspired by a deep commitment to the future of elephants. The Center is located on a 225-acre (≈ 90 hectare) site near the Blue Cypress Conservation Area. The land currently supports a citrus grove and is surrounded by farmland. More information: here.
A good follow-up reading has recently been published by Associated Press, ‘4 elephants call former citrus farm home’.
(Source: The National Elephant Center press release, 17.05.2013)