They say an elephant never forgets. Judging by the way Thandi came over to greet us, I tend to agree. Thandi, a 9000-pound elephant, is the matriarch of a family of African elephants who are being temporarily housed at the National Elephant Center in Fellsmere. The Center’s chief operating officer, Jeff Bolling was Thandi’s caretaker at Disney for 15 years before leaving to join the brand new facility in Indian River County. “She knew me immediately”, he said. “It was like being reunited with a lost dog. She’s my very best animal friend.”
33-year-old Thandi is the caring leader of the four elephants who arrived at center in May. She is joined by 32-year old Moya and her two sons Tufani,10 and Tsavo 5. She offers reassurance and guidance to the others.
“Tufani is showing signs of adolescence and depending on his attitude toward his mother and Thandi, may be moved to another paddock” explained Bolling. “We take our cues from the females. When they start chasing him off its time for him to get a bachelor pad.”
Male elephants, called bulls, have different social needs than females and live different lives. As they approach sexual maturity the bulls are driven out of the family group and they will spend as much as 95 percent of their life alone or in loose association with other bulls. Male elephants are competitive, unlike the females who are nurturing. In their early years they learn the capabilities of the bulls in the area and establish a social hierarchy and status. As they grow and mature they seek out breeding opportunities. Adult males have annual periods of elevated testosterone levels, called musth, which increase their chances of being selected by a female to mate.
Thandi plodded beside us on her side of the fence as we moved closer to the others. She stopped when we stopped and gazed at us as she flapped her enormous ears. “She does that to keep herself cool” explained Bolling. “Elephants are very social animals and she is enjoying the attention.” Across the field Moya is hiding behind a hill while her two calves munch on the branches of ageing citrus trees. It’s a peaceful, surreal scene that you only see in the movies. But it’s right here in our own backyard!
The elephants occupy one of three five-acre paddocks recently constructed in an obscure orange grove on a 225-acre parcel in western Indian River County. The interconnecting paddocks feature large meanders, fruit trees and waterholes providing the ideal habitat for foraging, interacting and mud wallowing. A large concrete barn built to sustain hurricane force winds can house both African and Asian elephants for their daily care and bathing or in the event of inclement weather. This completes phase one of the project, utilizing about a quarter of the available land. The master site plan includes four barns, a keeper workstation, a conservation education center, elephant overlooks and a group pavilion. “The key is flexibility” said Bolling. “We have the ability to quickly expand as the need arises”.
The National Elephant Center provides short term and long term care for North American Elephants in support of the accredited zoo population and the welfare for elephants in need. The Center could be a temporary housing facility while the home zoo undergoes renovations. It could be a place for a young male to come until another zoo wants to introduce him to their herd. Or it could be place where unwanted elephants live out the rest of their lives. “We are whatever the elephant needs” explained Bolling.
The non-profit facility is a collaborative effort of nearly 70 accredited zoos nationwide. Accredited zoos that connect people to elephants help inspire action toward their worldwide conservation. These zoos manage a population of elephants while also supporting more than 85 international elephant conservation and research programs including field-based training, habitat restoration, reduction of human-elephant conflict, ecotourism and community-based initiatives.
While the Center is not open to the public, there are ways that you can assist in the care of these majestic creatures. Volunteers opportunities are available through the Center’s website and donations are always welcome. For more information on volunteering, donating and educational opportunities, visit the The National Elephant Center website here.