COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Riverbanks Zoo recently announced plans to part with its remaining pair of African Elephants. The two females will be moved to another zoo later this year, but before that can happen the elephants and keepers need to get used to how the process will go with special training.
Inside the elephant's backup area, keepers take turns calling to Riverbanks' oldest elephant, 48-year-old Robin.
"Alright, Robin turn," commands senior keeper Alyson Proveaux, while another keeper encourages Robin to move to her right 45 degrees in a clockwise motion, "Robin come."
With each command and response, Robin is training for her next chapter, and her obedience is met with praise, "Good girl, Robin!" said Proveaux.
Keepers say they are moving at the animals' pace and the goal is to get them to be willing to move in different directions to eventually load into their transport container. "Once the transport container arrives, [keepers] will open the door and there will be a trainer near the crate calling them and sending them back-and-forth, and this is the training process to acclimate them," said John Davis, Director of Animal Care and Welfare at Riverbanks Zoo.
It's just one of many things keepers are working on daily with Robin and the zoo's only other African Elephant, 37-year-old Belle.
"We started several months ago as soon as we had an idea of what we needed to be doing," said Proveaux. "Beyond that, we started focusing on our relationship with them."
Keepers say that strong relationship and the animals' physical health will be keys to a successful transport, something that's proved risky for other zoos in the past. Back in 2014, the Greenville Zoo's last remaining elephant died in transport to her new home.
Riverbanks officials say they have performed a risk assessment and are doing everything they can to make sure the elephants stay healthy in transport.
"This is not the first time Riverbanks has moved elephants into the facility or out of the facility," said Davis. "What it comes down to is a well-designed transport plan and looking at all the features and sharing info to make sure we have a successful transfer."
Davis adds that plans have been in the works for months after plans to try and keep the elephants no longer seemed feasible. He says two years ago the zoo was planning an expansion but several factors changed the course, including the lack of elephants available at accredited zoos within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). He adds that's critical because elephants need to be in a larger herd.
"We would love to keep them here, but then it's our responsibility to bring in new herd members and have a larger herd," said Davis. "There are a lot of older females [in AZA zoos] that can no longer breed. Birth rates are really low right now.
In addition, Davis says the median life expectancy for African Elephants in captivity is 37, and since Belle is that age and Robin is 11 years older, it was important to make the decision before one of them was left alone.
"Having an elephant here by itself is what we considered to be inappropriate and not a part of successful management for elephants, so we took the proactive approach to go on and make the right decision for both elephants," said Davis.
So with the decision set, Davis says the training will continue for several weeks.
"It's been a difficult decision, but it's the right decision, and it's the only decision," said Davis. "We're going to focus on Belle and Robin and getting them to their new home safely."
While Riverbanks doesn't know yet where that new home will be, Davis says they are working closely with other AZA zoos to determine the best fit. But Davis promises two things, Robin and Belle will be moved together, and they'll be staying on the East Coast.
Riverbanks have already announced plans to use the African Elephant exhibit to house Southern White Rhinos starting in the summer of 2020. Davis says there’s a chance that African Elephants will return to Riverbanks in the future, but that will be dependent on several factors including the availability of the species in the AZA.