A HERD of elephants is being flown from a Kent zoo – in what will be a world first – to start a new life in the wilds of Africa.
The group of 13, including three babies, will be transported more than 4,000 miles on a Boeing 747, nicknamed a Dumbo jet, to plains in Kenya.
The elephants, which weigh more than 25 tonnes in total, have been living at Howletts Wild Animal Park near Canterbury, which is part of the Aspinall Foundation.
Director of communications for the conservation group is eco-campaigner and Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson – and today she is speaking out publicly for the first time since marrying Boris in May.
On behalf of the Aspinall Foundation, she joins with its chairman Damian Aspinall to explain why now is the right time for the biggest mammals on land to stop living in captivity.
The first elephant arrived in this country in 1255, a present from Louis IX of France to Henry III.
After almost eight centuries of the animals living here in captivity, we plan to send the first herd of elephants back to the continent of Africa.
For sheer quality of life, the ones at Howletts Wild Animal Park enjoy some of the most idyllic conditions of any captive elephants in the world.
However, The Aspinall Foundation believes these elephants could be living in better conditions still.
And that’s in the wild — in Africa.
A life at Howletts means these animals are well fed and they have expert keepers.
They have eight acres in which to roam and the 13 animals now represent one the most successful breeding herds in Europe.
No TV show or internet clip can compete with a live and intimate viewing of the largest land mammal in the world, with their height, the domes of their heads, vast sway of their trunks and the noise of their eating and breathing.
But is that reason enough to keep elephants in captivity, just for our viewing pleasure?
For decades, zoos have been able to argue that their captive populations are indispensable, not just for education and human enjoy-ment but also for conservation.
It is a tragedy that in the last century, humanity has wiped out 90 per cent of African elephants and, sickeningly, the demand for ivory continues.
With the fall in tourism during the pandemic, the pressure on habitat — from farmers and poachers — is growing sharply.
So there are powerful and well-intentioned voices that contend we need to keep a reserve for these endangered species, behind bars or wire fences, in zoos.
We at the Aspinall Foundation are not so sure. In fact, we know it is overwhelmingly better, where possible, for animals to be in the wild. The data is unmistakable.
It is a sad fact that elephants in captivity do not live as long as their counterparts in the wild in spite of the constant threat from poachers.
It is reported the median life span of a captive elephant is 16.9 years, compared to 56 for an elephant in a Kenyan park.
Another report finds that captive females have only half the life expectancy of females in the bush, while calf mortality is twice as high in captivity.
Three-quarters of captive elephants are believed to be classed as overweight.
In their natural habitat, they can walk 100km in two days. In captivity they tend to suffer from arthritis and foot conditions associated with a life of relative immobility.
There is abundant evidence of the stress and depression endured by captive elephants, especially solitary beasts deprived of their herd mates.
After years of weighing up the benefits and the risks, we at the Aspinall Foundation have decided on an unprecedented project and a real world first.
Working with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, we are taking steps to rewild these elephants to Africa, where their species evolved.
This is the first time a breeding herd of elephants has ever been rewilded.
There are two sites we are studying, both in the south of Kenya where the elephants famously roll in the red dust.
The spaces are vast. The forage and foliage is abundant and it is perfect country for elephants. The 13 Howletts animals belong to two large sub-groups but we intend to rewild them as one family.
Of course there are risks to elephant health that you don’t find in the Home Counties. There are lions and crocodiles, tsetse flies and ticks.
But The Aspinall Foundation has experience of rewilding projects around the world, and The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust will ensure there are wardens on hand to monitor and assist the transition.
We will use dedicated anti-poaching teams to protect the new arrivals and our zoologists are confident the project will be successful.
In time, their descendants will number in the hundreds — and then the thousands — and form part of the incomparable ecosystem that helps drive the Kenyan tourist economy.
It will be a ground-breaking step for this country and for the conservation movement.
We strongly believe this is the right future for them, and other wildlife organisations are increasingly sharing our view.
Life in Kent is pretty good for these elephants, all things considered. But Africa is where they belong.
- You can help the cause at justgiving.com/campaign/backtothewild
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