When we talk about providing elephants with a natural habitat sanctuary, there is one frequently asked question that prevails; how much space does an elephant require? This is a simple question with a complex and somewhat, open-ended answer. Typically, people are asking in reference to how many head of cattle or equine can be sustained on a certain piece of land. Elephants, however, and the scope of sanctuary are grossly more complex.
For our purposes we are not only trying to sustain their dietary needs, we are addressing the substantially more diverse aspects of psychological stimulation, social spatial needs and habitat sustainability. Within each of these categories there are multiple aspects to be considered.
THE BASIC NEED FOR SPACE
When developing sanctuary we have to look at the nature, how much space elephants use in the wild, not what they’ve been restricted to in captivity. If all we did was compare to the ½ acre or even 2 or 3 acres that captive elephants are typically restricted to, any improvement is better, but we know that providing even 10 times as much space as a zoo may not be enough for elephants to thrive. When I co-founded a sanctuary in 1995 we started with 110 acres. Based on what we had previously experienced we thought this was enormous, and compared to what existed at the time it was huge, but we quickly learned that as the elephants re-learn how to be an elephant, 110 acres still was not enough. In time we expanded up to 2700 acres in total, and witness that a substantial increase with space appears to have a direct and significant affect on the rate and degree of healing and recovery.
SPACE IN THE WILD
When looking at wild elephants the size of their home range is staggering. The home range for wild African elephants can extend up to 11,000 square kilometers, more than 2.7 million acres, female Asian elephants, up to 400 square kilometers and almost double that for a male, up to 200,000 acres. This immediately raises the question of why the disparaging figures; the simple answer is that African and Asian elephants are different species, living in vastly different climatic and topographical regions. One of the biggest reasons for the difference is vegetation, Asian elephants tend to be dense jungle dwellers and Africans are generally savannah inhabitants. There are African forest elephants that have smaller home ranges and a cousin of the African Savannah elephants that live in the desert that have a substantially larger home range, further pointing to food supply as a major factor with home range. But we know based on the devastating and traumatic impact of typical captive environments that there is so much more to elephant health than food and a place to stand. Elephants need the opportunity and motivation to explore, to seek out solitude or social experiences, to search for the greenest grass and the tree with ripening fruit, they need autonomy and to feel secure. We know that we can’t replicate the wild, purchasing and enclosing more than 2 million acres or even 200,000 acres simply isn’t reasonable but we do believe that for elephants, you have to adopt the mantra of, go big or go home.
PLANNING FOR ALL CAPTIVE ELEPHANTS
With our pilot project of Global Sanctuary for Elephants, we’ll be accepting and caring for both genders from both species. To accomplish this and to provide a thorough opportunity to heal and grow, proper space becomes an even greater consideration. The definition of proper space is broad; it can be individual as well as species and gender specific and it can be complicated as a result of the psychological damage caused by captivity. Within sanctuary, most elephants adapt rapidly to the increased space they are offered, for a time they will frequently come back to the barn or main location as they explore then return seemingly to ensure the barn is still there. It is pertinent to remember that all of these captive elephants have only known grossly limited space where the barn and the four sides of their world have always been in sight. It doesn’t take long for most elephants to build the confidence to just keep walking, to explore what it around the next corner or within the next tree line. It’s a brilliant sight to see when they realize that even when they round the bend, the fence is still not there, when they realize that they have the choice to choose where and what to graze. But, as we’ve said before, sanctuary isn’t perfect and while space can and will bring tremendous gifts or healing to elephants, there are times, when too much space is frightening. With one elephant in particular that I worked with, a particularly sensitive elephant that put on tough façade, she needed less space for a time. It seemed to us that when she was let out in the larger space she would be comfortable for a while but then she would start to tear things apart, corrals around cameras and fences, when she would return to her small space you could almost see a sense of ease set in. This temporary stage in her growth had a deep impact on a few levels; she learned to control her comfort through the her own choices and it taught us to be open to their needs especially when they don’t resonate with what we presume their natural desire and tendencies will be. Now, she is thriving within an expansive and open space, she is one that wanders deepest into the habitat, out of sight for hours on end, her healing and growth has allowed her to learn what it means to be an elephant. Substantial space is pivotal for elephants to thrive yet we have to consider with our design and layout the impact that captivity has bestowed upon them, we have to develop the space in a manner that allows each individual to feel comfortable and safe. This comfort can come in many forms, other elephants, autonomy, open pasture… the list is endless; when choosing the property and designing sanctuary we have to take all of these possibilities into consideration.
DIVERSITY IS A NECESSITY
Determining proper space also needs to include topography, vegetation, water and location. 300 acres of flat open pasture has a vastly different benefit than 300 acres of hilly terrain with valleys of trees and hilltop pastures. Topography creates opportunities to grow various species of grass, trees and shrubs; some that are more shade dependent or require different soil PH. This diversity promotes physical and psychological stimulation as elephants search for a variety flora for dietary or medical needs (captive elephants in sanctuary have been observed eating specific plants to self medicate-another topic for another day) to seek shelter from prevailing winds or the perfect hill for an afternoon nap.
THE COST OF DEVELOPING SANCTUARY
With sanctuary we not only have to look at the elephants needs but also the logistics and financial burden of developing and maintaining the space provided to the elephants. We will be required to construct a double fence system, one to keep the elephants in and one to keep people out, which is as much about protecting people from their own naivety as it is about protecting the elephants. This comes at a very steep price, in Brazil we are still working on gathering quotes but in the US, some elephant proof fences at elephant sanctuaries are known to cost up to $150 per foot to construct. It’s not enough to fence off the perimeter of the property, it is also vital to subdivide the property between the species and create separate spaces within those to accommodate for the potentials that exist. These possibilities include males needing to be separate during musth, individuals that need time to adjust, flexibility for introductions and isolating areas that require fence maintenance or habitat rejuvenation. Ideally the majority of these individual, interconnected habitats or corrals will always be opened, as elephants heal and recover more is almost always better for an elephant, but we need to maintain the ability to separate, sometimes this is for safety or just to help some feel safe.
BUILDING SO THEY CAN THRIVE
Ultimately, none of us know how much space is enough, we know in general what doesn’t work, we know that we have to be open to individual needs and we know that those needs will change. We know that elephants will adapt to any space they are provided, but with the principles of sanctuary we want to create an opportunity to thrive, to feel secure and experience dynamic social opportunities, and to make their own choice; it’s not just about existing, it’s about truly living.
When searching and selecting land for sanctuary we set a goal of more than 1000 acres per species with potential to expand, we look for diversity with terrain, water sources, vegetation and soil, feasibility for construction and development, cost of the land and species suitability as each will have various needs.
We admittedly, even after nearly 20 years of sanctuary knowledge, do not have all of the answers, when working with captive elephants you have to adopt a life of adaptability. We need to start with enough space to open our doors and to start giving elephants the opportunity to heal but we must be ready to adapt to the ever changing needs of every individual, even when it doesn’t necessarily make sense.
Go big, be ready to adapt, trust in the bigger picture…”simple” solutions to a complex world of elephant health.