Mara investigating her transport container at Ecoparque Buenos Aires.
Mara, a 3.5-ton, 54-year-old female Asian elephant, has lived in captivity at Argentina’s Buenos Aires Zoo for a quarter century. While she has provided an impressive sight for visitors, Mara has had little room to roam, confined as she is to a 1,200-square-meter (13,000-sq-foot) compound.
This state of affairs could change dramatically early next month. That’s when Mara is scheduled to be loaded in a custom-built crate and carried by flatbed truck from Buenos Aires to a recently created, 1,133-hectare (2,800-acre) elephant sanctuary in Brazil, the first of its kind in Latin America. (As of March 21, plans for the move were still on despite restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic.)
Mara is making the five-day, 2,700-kilometer (1,674-mile) move because the zoo is being torn down to make way for Buenos Aires Ecoparque, a 17-hectare (42-acre) natural area expected to be completed in 2023. As part of that project, the Buenos Aires municipal government has already relocated 820 zoo animals to nature reserves and sanctuaries, mostly in Argentina and in some cases the United States.
Mara, born in India, spent nearly all of her life in captivity—first in circuses in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, then 25 years in the Buenos Aires Zoo. Her next destination is Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, a private, nonprofit nature reserve in western Mato Grosso state.
The sanctuary is located in the Cerrado, the vast, wooded tropical grassland that spans nine, western and central Brazilian states and is touted as the world’s most biologically rich savannah. The sanctuary includes two valleys, numerous headwaters, and ample grassy terrain that had once been cattle pasture.
Elephant Sanctuary Brazil began sheltering elephants in 2016, after buying the land it now occupies in 2015 for US$2 million. It is a collaboration of two U.S.-based nonprofits—Global Sanctuary for Elephants and ElephantVoices. Global Sanctuary for Elephants, founded in 2013 to develop safe havens for animals worldwide, focuses in particular on rescuing and retiring captive elephants in Latin America, while ElephantVoices is dedicated to the study of elephant cognition.
The two groups are addressing a legacy of cruelty. When captured, elephant calves typically have been placed in chains or extremely tight confinement to break their spirit and make them responsive to commands, experts say. Such conditions often include poor diet and isolation from social groups, which cause physical health problems as well as psychological trauma that triggers everything from aggression to self-mutilation and withdrawal.
To end such treatment, nine Latin American countries—Peru, Paraguay, Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Bolivia—have banned the use of performing elephants. Eleven Brazilian states have approved similar measures, but a national ban has languished in Brazil’s Congress since 2006.
Scott Blais, CEO of Global Sanctuary for Elephants and president of Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, says the Brazilian safe haven was created to “help restore [formerly captive elephants’] dignity and their quality of life.”
Mara will join Maia, 47, Rana, 60, and Lady, 49—all female Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) that had spent most of their lives in Brazilian circuses before coming to the sanctuary in 2016, 2018, and 2019, respectively. She will be only the second elephant outside Brazil to be transferred to the sanctuary. Ramba, a 60- to 65-year old Asian female circus elephant died of kidney failure three months after arriving from Chile in October 2019.
The sanctuary cannot provide elephants complete freedom, but it does offer room to roam. Its three resident elephants currently occupy a 28-hectare (69-acre) portion of the sanctuary that has been fenced off with used oil-drilling pipeline. Organizers say three more elephants can occupy that area, and a total of 50 of the animals can be accommodated once the entire 1,133-hectare sanctuary is fenced.
The sanctuary plans to have four fenced-in areas: one for Asian male elephants, one for Asian females, one for African males and one for African females of two species (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis). Blais says elephants live more convivially when separated by gender, and that keeping elephants from Asia and Africa apart can help preserve their social structures and behavioral patterns.
During the May-to-November rainy season, 80-90% of the elephants’ diet comes from natural foraging of grass, leaves and branches. In the dry season, foraging accounts for just 60-70% of their food, which also includes hay. Year round, the sanctuary supplements each elephant’s daily diet with two kilos of grain and ten kilos of fruits and vegetables. Enclosed shelters are not needed on account of the tropical climate; they can roam and graze outdoors year round. The sanctuary is not open to the public so as not to disturb the animals.
Blais acknowledges that fencing elephants in and segregating them by gender and species still constitutes captivity and control. But he argues it is a necessary response to a “grossly compromised situation” and dramatically improves their lives. “When you see these elephants come out of the captivity of a zoo or circus, and give them a life of sanctuary, the difference is astronomical. These elephants undergo an unfathomable and transformative improvement in their living conditions, seemingly overnight. [They] have the freedom to seek solitude, explore, choose friends and make decisions that can create a big difference in the outcome of their days.”
Frank Carlos Camacho, president of the Latin American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, notes extra room is not all that’s needed: “Elephants that can roam in large spaces are physically and mentally better off than those in small, confined spaces if they are provided with adequate nutrition and veterinary care, especially for their feet, and with an adequate social structure tailored to each elephant’s physical and psychological needs.”
In overseeing the Brazilian sanctuary project, Blais has drawn on his experience creating a similar reserve in the United States. The nonprofit Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, established in 1995, was the first of its kind in the world. It now encompasses 1,093 hectares (2,700 acres) and is home to 10 Asian and African elephants, all retired from zoos and circuses. There are currently two other U.S. elephant sanctuaries and a total of five in three Asian countries—Thailand, India and Cambodia.
- Michael Kepp
In the index: At Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, rescued elephants roam and forage in a tropical tract that organizers say could eventually accommodate 50 of the animals. (Photo by Global Sanctuary for Elephants)