at, Oct 15, 2016 - Page 7 

Brazil opens first elephant sanctuary in Latin America

Asian elephants Guida, left, and Maia stand together for the first time in the 
adaptation area of their new home in Chapada dos Guimaraes, Brazil, on 
Photo: AP
Maia grunts and nervously moves her huge body back and forth while being 
released from a transport container to a new home.

Here, there are no gawking crowds for the Asian elephant that has spent her 
life in captivity. There are no blows from bull hooks, no one demanding tricks 
like people did when she was in the circus.

Instead, the first elephant sanctuary in Latin America, on about 1,133 hectares 
in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, will allow Maia and Guida, 
another Asian elephant that arrived this week, to simply roam.

The two, along with possibly dozens more elephants in the future, are to 
receive veterinary care as they live out their lives in forested areas, pasture 
lands with hills, large boulders, streams and springs.

“Societies around the world are starting to become more aware of the trauma we 
have caused these animals [in captivity],” said Scott Blais, an American who 
drew on his experience cofounding a similar sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995 to 
help get this one off the ground.

“We need to build solutions. It’s not enough to simply say they need a 
different life,” he said.

For Blais and his wife, getting to this point was a long road. After years of 
planning, they moved to Brazil more than two years ago.

Latin America’s most populous nation, with a land mass larger than the 
continental US, was chosen for many reasons: the variety of real estate 
available, a team of like-minded people already in the country and an urgent 
need to take in elephants from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela.

Sanctuary officials estimate there are more than 50 elephants in South America 
that are similar to Maia and Guida: in the last phase of their lives and in 
need of a home as zoos consolidate and more jurisdictions, including many 
Brazilian states, prohibit the use of animals in circuses.

Maia and Guida, both over 40 and unable to perform, spent several years 
languishing on a farm about 1,300km away in the state of Minas Gerais. Not long 
after both had been released, Guida approached Maia and the two embraced with 
their trunks.

Blais, CEO of US-based Global Sanctuary for Elephants, and local partners set 
out to create the sanctuary on a piece of donated land in the northern part of 
Mato Grosso, a state known for varied vegetation and a tropical climate that 
includes summer rains and dry winters.

However, the absence of deeds for all the land, a problem in rural Brazil, made 
creating the sanctuary there impossible. So the search continued, finally 
ending with the purchase of land in the state’s southern part for roughly US$1 
million to be paid over five years.

As at other sanctuaries, cameras will allow people from children to scientists 
to observe the animals while letting them live in peace.

“These days, it’s absurd to have elephants in captivity,” said Junia Machado, 
president of Brazil Elephant Sanctuary, a local group driving the project. 
“Having cameras makes it easier to get information about them. We hope this 
project inspires other sanctuaries.”

Figuring out what to do with aging elephants has become increasingly difficult 
as their natural habitats come under attack on the two continents they come 

In Asia, the biggest threat is dwindling land.

The animals are often illegally hunted for their ivory tusks in Africa, where a 
large-scale survey dubbed the “Great Elephant Census” found an alarming 30 
percent drop in elephant populations between 2007 and 2014.

Elephant experts said the animals would not survive if they were simply 
returned to the wild after living in captivity.

The gap is slowly being filled by a handful of sanctuaries in countries such as 
the US, Thailand and Malaysia.

Living in a sanctuary can make a big difference for the highly intelligent 
animals that have a wide range of personalities.

Blais cited Sissy, an elephant taken to the Tennessee sanctuary in 2000. Sissy 
had been labeled a killer after a zookeeper tending to her died from crushed 
ribs in 1997.

She was also labeled as autistic and anti-social, and appeared so traumatized 
that caregivers were not sure she would last long. Sixteen years later, she 
still lives at the sanctuary, and is thriving.

“We saw that all the things she was labeled with were not her at all,” Blais 
said. “She evolved into one of the most sensitive, complex beings that I’ve 
ever witnessed.”

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