Gandhi, a 52-year-old female Asian elephant, is the first resident arriving at the brand-new centre in France for retired European circus and zoo elephants. Located at a 29-hectare former farm in Bussière-Galant, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region in western France, the site is currently equipped to keep only three female elephants — but there are plans to expand it so it can keep six or seven.
The project to create a European Elephant Sanctuary, named “Elephant Heaven”, started back in 2016 by a couple of former Flemish zookeepers, Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst, as the trend to ban wild animals in circuses spread and some countries began accepting elephants should not be kept in zoos. There are at least 24 European countries that ban wild animals in circuses, including France which banned them just a few weeks ago, but about 100 elephants are still kept by European circuses. Recently, the UK Government suggested it is considering a ban on keeping elephants in zoos and safari parks, but if this indeed happens probably will only prevent zoos to acquire new elephants, rather than making the 11 zoos that still keep them moving them to sanctuaries.
Gandhi is thought to be originally caught from the wild in Thailand. In 1973 she was transported to Givskud zoo in Denmark, and in 1998 to the zoo Les Terres de Nataé in Brittany. The idea of rehabilitating her back into the wild in her natural home has been discarded, so she now will live the rest of her life in captivity at the new centre in Aquitaine — whether this qualifies as “retirement’ depends on how different will her life be from now on.
Elephants do not belong to captivity, like any wild animal. But from all the animals that suffer a life of misery and madness at zoos in the world, elephants are the ones whose suffering has been more widely recognised.
In 2003, I studied the enclosure size in captive wild mammals kept in UK zoos, compared with their natural home ranges in the wild. I concluded that, in the case of elephants, the average area of the enclosures they were kept in was 1,000 times smaller than their minimum home range in the wild. I suspect that all elephant sanctuaries may still be far too small and barren for elephants, never getting closer to the living conditions they really need. I hope that elephant sanctuaries do not become “neo-zoos” where the animals are still “exhibited” to the public for money — but now just in bigger enclosures — and they are still run by the zoo industry rebranding themselves as the rescuers of circus elephants. The priority should be ensuring, as soon as possible, that no more new elephants are kept in captivity, by banning their breeding, their capture from the wild and their trade. And finally, phase out zoos altogether.