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Elephant sanctuary founded by Belgians welcomes first resident

14:00 04/11/2021

The Belgians who have been working for more than five years to open an elephant sanctuary in France have welcomed their first resident. Gandhi is a 52-year-old Asian elephant who has been moved from an animal park that has phased out its elephant residents.

Tony Verhulst and Sofie Goetghebeur previously worked as animal caretakers at the Antwerp Zoo. They left the port city for the village of Bussière-Galant in 2015, where they bought up nearly 30 hectares to realise their dream of offering a refuge for elephants.

The couple were concerned about what would happen to the gentle giants as more and more countries were banning the use of the animals from circuses. “There are more than 100 circus elephants in Europe,” says Verhulst. “They will have nowhere to go.”

Before heading to France, Verhulst had been working at Antwerp Zoo for more than 20 years. He was eventually the main caretaker to the elephants. “I would observe them every day, realising how complex and intelligent they are, how much they care for each other and what they value,” he says. “I have no doubt that, on a certain level, they are more intelligent than us.”

Belgians Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst of Elephant HavenBelgians Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst bought land in western France to establish Elephant Haven  ©Bartosz Brzezinski

Besides taking in retired circus elephants, Elephant Haven will become home to older elephants who have trouble getting along with younger ones and have to be isolated. Many of these elephants have been born in captivity and cannot be returned to the wild. Most of them, like Gandhi, will be over the age of 50.

“In the wild, elephants can easily reach the age of 80,” Goetghebeur told VRT. “But in captivity in Europe, 52 is already pretty old. The animals die earlier due to illness, such as abscesses and osteoarthritis.”

It took much longer for Elephant Haven to get off the ground than the couple expected; they have spent years preparing the property and getting permits in order. They have been supported in the project by many donors, and one in particular: Legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot. “She paid in large part for the stalls and is really taken with the project,” said Goetghebeur.

Now that they are hosting a real, live elephant, they feel it has finally gotten off the ground. “It’s just like having a baby,” said Goetghebeur. “Our whole lives have changed. We are testing out routines, together with Gandhi, and she makes it quite clear what she does and doesn’t want. She’s getting a real VIP treatment – a pedicure every day, and games. We hide her food so she has to find it herself. Elephants are very intelligent animals and need to be given sufficient challenges.”

Elephant Haven would like to restrict its 29 hectares to six elephants but are working to acquire some 20 more hectares. Anyone interested in supporting the project can find out how on the website.

Photo top: Courtesy Elephant Haven

Written by Lisa Bradshaw