In Bussière-Galant in Limousin, France, work is well underway for the first elephant sanctuary in Europe, called Elephant Haven. First thought up by two Belgian animal trainers, Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst, the idea is that this will be a 'care home' where elephants can go to be looked after in Europe from the end of 2018.
Elephants are about to have their very own safe place in Europe. A small, green paradise where they can relax after their years in captivity spent in circuses or zoos. In Bussière-Galant in Limousin, France, the first elephant sanctuary in Europe is currently being built where an old horse farm used to be, spreading over 28 hectares.
Two former trainers from the Anvers Zoo in Belgium, Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst first started this project. The idea came from their love of elephants, but also came from an upsetting observation. According to their estimations, there are no less than 141 elephants in circuses in Europe. But this presence is being called into question more and more lately.
A lot of European countries such as Sweden, have already decided to ban wild animals in circuses. Some French towns such as Strasbourg have also taken this on board by refusing to host circuses that include acts with these animals. So, facing this new development is the looming question: what do we do with elephants that can live to be 60 years old, if we can’t use them for shows?
For the majority of animals that were captured when they were young or were born in captivity, sending them back into the wild is an unrealistic option. This is why Tony Verhulst and Sofie Goetghebeur had the idea to create a safe haven for them in Europe, modelled on those sanctuaries that already exist in the United States and Asia.
A dream becoming a reality
After finding the perfect location - around 40km from Limoges - and starting work, the two former trainers made a huge step forward last year. They got their official permit to open the haven, the last piece of the puzzle that they needed to be able to solidify their plans for Elephant Haven. Since then, work has been well underway so that this dream can become a reality.
While fences, new trees and a garden have been built in the sanctuary, there is still a lot to do so that this old horse farm can become a paradise for elephants. Luckily, Sofie and Tony have received some incredible support, especially including donations for equipment but also help from many charities, including those from the MakiGo association who have made this project one of their most important missions.
Volunteers regularly come to work on the site. Through a recent program, they help to dig trenches and create a drainage system to supply water to a future tank for the elephants and they will even start preparing to install a second fence. When it comes to welcoming these animals who can measure up to 4 metres and weigh 6 tonnes, nothing will be left to chance.
The two trainers had to do so much to get this far, sometimes overcoming difficult challenges. 'They told us we were crazy at first,' they told us in 2016 but since then, support has increased massively which some have described as unexpected as well as invaluable.
André-Joseph Bouglione, member of the famous Circassian family who decided to put an end to shows with wild animals, joined the initiative, calling it a 'blessing'. More recently, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation has decided to support the building of the sanctuary and has helped to finance it as well as helping with the planning for the housing shelter for which construction will begin soon.
'What’s great is to see that there is a real network that has been set up, volunteers, business support, local authorities, so a non-profit organisation such as the Brigitte Bardot Foundation couldn’t just stand by and watch. Instead, we must support these types of initiatives and ensure that there is a positive result for the animals,' explained Christophe Marie, spokesperson for the Brigitte Bardot Foundation.
This partner is helping the Elephant Haven so that they can open their doors and welcome their first animals at some point before the end of 2018. The Belgian trainers are hoping to bring in three elephants at first, and eventually host up to ten of these 'retired elephants'.