Europe’s first elephant sanctuary is ready to host animals

Europe’s first “retirement home” for zoo and circus elephants is now ready – and waiting to welcome its first residents.

27 June 2020
Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst outside the finished barn of Elephant Haven.Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst outside the finished barn of Elephant Haven.
By Connexion Journalist

But finding elephants which owners are prepared to release is proving difficult. Belgian couple Sophie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst, the co-founders of Elephant Haven, at Bussière- Galant, Haute-Vienne, say the first barn and surrounding enclosure are finished and they have the green light for three elephants. Confinement meant it took longer than planned, as they had to do all the work themselves, without help from volunteers.

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The purpose-built sanctuary

The couple, who both previously cared for animals in zoos, believe around 100 elephants in Europe are due to retire from circus life and would benefit from the open space of the purpose-built sanctuary. However, Ms Goetghebeur says their fight is not over, as many circuses and zoos are unwilling to give up their animals. “We know it can often take a long time for the idea of a sanctuary to be recognised, and many zoos and circuses are against us. We do not judge anyone. It is all about the elephants and we just want to give a good end-of-life experience to them."

“This can be because performing animals in circuses are illegal in many European countries now, or because they are too old. We are trying to reach out to a small circus in Holland which has an elephant which can no longer legally perform, but so far the family is reluctant to let it go. There are many other plans we are working on behind the scenes, which we cannot say too much about at present.”

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The process of creating Elephant Haven

The finished interior barn at Elephant Haven.
The finished interior barn at Elephant Haven.

The couple decided to create the home in 2012 and moved from Belgium in 2014, because of the availability of suitable land in France. It took until 2016 to raise enough money to buy land and they spent three years getting all the necessary permits, plus more money to start the building of the elephant barn, which began in May 2018. They have had help from many organisations, including one of France’s biggest animal welfare charities, Fondation Brigitte Bardot, which gave €350,000 in 2018.

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