Elephant Haven, near Limoges, Haute-Vienne, is Europe’s first sanctuary for former zoo and circus elephants and currently has space for three females.
Obtaining permits and constructing infrastructure and fences was only half the battle to get it ready – building relationships with other welfare organisations was key before welcoming the first resident in October.
Gandhi was born in the wild in 1969, probably in Thailand, transferred to Givskud Zoo in Denmark in 1973, and arrived at Les Terres de Nataé Zoo in Brittany in 1998. She is now 52 years old, weighs 3.6 tonnes and has never had a calf. The precise details of her story are lost, but what is known is that she has arthritis, and behavioural difficulties relating to other elephants.
“In time, we hope to introduce her to other females,” says Tony Verhulst, who co-founded EHEES (Elephant Haven European Elephant Sanctuary) with Sofie Goetghebeur.
“The heated ele-barn and outdoor areas have been designed so that elephants can be separated while being able to see and interact with each other. This means resident and incoming elephants will be able to get used to each other very gradually. We hope that eventually they will decide to share the same territory.”
Socialising elephants that have lived alone for decades is a vital part of elephant care because they are naturally herd animals, living either in matriarchal family groups or smaller bachelor herds in the wild.
'We can learn a lot from elephants’ values'
“They are very social. They take care of their children and parents. Female elephants remain with their mothers, sisters and cousins. They mourn dead elephants from their herd.”
Elephant Haven is currently authorised to take three female elephants, but plans to increase that number.
It will not breed them. All other considerations aside, ovaries in females which have never had a calf grow benign cysts, making it very rare for them to conceive after about 40 years old.
There are far fewer male than female elephants in Europe, and accommodating them would require bull-safe infrastructure to be installed.
Surgically castrating an elephant is difficult because the testicles are inside their bodies. Chemical castration is an option but males tend to be kept in bachelor groups.
Mr Verhulst and Ms Goetghebeur previously worked at Antwerp Zoo, where they developed their fondness for elephants.
“I love them because although they are enormous, they are sensitive, humorous, soft, vulnerable, communicative, highly intelligent, and affectionate,” says Mr Verhulst.
“It is possible for humans to experience the same intense, profound bonds as they do with horses, dogs and cats.”
He adds that caring for them is no small task.
“It took a huge team to get Gandhi here. We worked with other sanctuaries, the zoo, specialist vets and charities, including the Fondation Brigitte Bardot and the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee – and we began working with Gandhi several months before the transfer, giving medical care and building trust to prepare her.”
Elephant Haven is the only sanctuary in the EU
As one country after another bans wild animals from circuses, elephants are becoming redundant and need places to retire.
It is rarely possible to return an elephant to its country of origin.
The sanctuary is entirely financed by donations and staffed by volunteers. “It is not possible to visit the elephants, and volunteers do not work with them. Even we never go in with them,” says Ms Goetghebeur.
“We treat them though an elefence, so they can always walk away. Everything is their choice. But if they need attention, they will make that clear and we will be there for them.
“Gandhi and her future companions are retired here, to enjoy some peace and quiet out of the public eye.”
Local people have had plenty of time to get used to the idea of elephants in the area, after Covid slowed down the opening of the sanctuary.
There is a sense of satisfaction that an elephant has finally arrived, and a hope that more will join her soon.
Mr Verhulst and Ms Goetghebeur are considering setting up ele-cams, such as those used in other sanctuaries, which would make it possible for elephant lovers worldwide to watch residents exploring their habitat, feeding and making friends.
In the meantime, Gandhi is settling in well.
“She is quite a drama queen but has a heart of gold,” says Ms Goetghebeur.
“We give care and treatments, along with treats and fun to make it enjoyable for her.
“Footcare was not very comfortable in the beginning, but as she feels the difference, she allows more treatment. In fact, in the morning she is up and waiting for us.
“She eats 90% forage and 10% treats, like fresh vegetables and fresh/dried fruit. She loves strong flavours like parsley, broccoli and lemons. She also likes melons, pumpkins and prunes, but she will not touch courgettes.”
In the beginning, Gandhi stayed very close to the heated elephant barn, but is now gradually exploring her outdoor habitat.
Her carers say she likes throwing sand over her back, playing with her ball – suspended from a chain containing elephant treats – and using the back-rubbing stations.
More information about Gandhi and the sanctuary generally can be found at elephanthaven.com.