Europe’s first Elephant Sanctuary

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By Jen

This rural sleepy region in France has an older population. Sprightly octogenarians can be seen out chopping wood in the winter, or in the fields rounding up cows in the summer. The air is clean, there are more cows than people. There’s a back-to-nature traditional approach to life. And more retirees are on their way – ELEPHANTS.

Yup, elephants. Those big grey loyal, majestic beasties who will become extinct in the not to distant future if we don’t watch out. There are many other animals who aren’t faring too well either but, maybe like lots of  people, I have especially loved elephants since I was a tiny kid. Even more when I grew up to learn how fiercely protective they are towards their families, how nobly forgiving they can be to any adoptive human carers, and how darn cute their babies are.

My 10 year old Katie and I were lucky enough to volunteer for a short while at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants near Chiang Mai in Thailand last year. Almost exactly a year ago. It had a profound effect on us both. I reckon anyone who’s been must feel the same.

Medo elephant nature park Thailand
This is Medo from the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. She has gentle hazel eyes – and a dislocated hip and disfigured ankle. The sanctuary rescued her from a life that would make anyone cry.

I found out in a local newspaper that a courageous Belgian couple had been busting a gut for years trying to create Europe’s first elephant sanctuary.  And they had found the perfect location – just down the road.

I wanted to know more. Who were these people? Why here?  Where are the elephants from?  Is it not too cold here for elephants?

I got the answers when I spoke with Tony and Sofie, the couple behind the plan and the organisation Elephant Haven.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourselves?

“We are Tony Verhulst and Sofie Goetghebeur, from Antwerp, Belgium. We both have been working for more than 20 years in Antwerp Zoo. Sofie worked with a lot of different animals like birds, monkeys, sea lions, okapi (google them – they are like an amazing cross between a zebra and a giraffe) and for a long time with great apes. For the last few years she has also worked with elephants.

Tony has been working with the elephants in the zoo since 2001. He took care of old circus elephants and wondered why there was no retirement home for elephants in Europe. Instead, they are often moved around and caused unnecessary extra transportation stress. Could they not retire and stay somewhere for life? With the banning of wild animals in circuses in more and more countries across Europe, where can these elephants go?

Tony and Sofie have worked with elephants for 20 years.
Tony and Sofie have worked with elephants for 20 years.  Picture kindly supplied by Elephant Haven.

We have been working for several years to try and find a solution.

2. How did you become involved with elephants?

We love all animals, but were inspired by elephants and their life story. Because we worked in a zoo, we had the opportunity to learn about them, and the more we learnt, the more we wanted to learn. We also did some volunteer work with elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and visited PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) in California.

Tony looked after Juranee, another ENP elephant, for 3 months as a volunteer.  She is blind.  Picture kindly supplied by Elephant Haven
Tony looked after Juranee, another ENP elephant, for 3 months as a volunteer. She is blind. Picture kindly supplied by Elephant Haven

3. Why the middle of France, in Limousin, for the sanctuary?

The Limousin region is a very beautiful (unknown) place with amazing nature and wonderful friendly people.

Elephants need a lot of land and we opted for 25 hectares with lots of possibilities to expand in the future. It’s situated near Oradour sur Vayres in the Parc Naturel Régional Périgord Nord. Bearing the elephants’ needs in mind, it’s a nice balance. There is a lot of woodland with broad-leaved trees. And hay and water are plentiful. There is also a lot of local support. The elephants coming to the park will be used to European weather, they will be able to choose whether to be inside or outside.

The place is easily accessible by train, plane and car. So, the region is good for the elephants, and for people who want to see them.

The green rolling hills of the Limousin.  Picture kindly supplied by Elephant Haven.

4. How can people help you?

We need help with people spreading the word. Time is running out. Before the end of March 2015 we need to have raised the full amount to buy the land. If people have ideas or want to help fundraise, they can send an email to We also need practical help with the IT that surrounds a project like this. The more help, the better.

5. Any memorable elephant tales?

There are so many … every moment with an elephant is memorable ;-)”

And the future…..

Elephants live for as long as humans.  They cannot be returned to the wild after a life in captivity.  If they are retired from life in circuses or shows, they have nowhere to go.

The Elephant Haven will have a maximum initial capacity of 10 elephants, with the first arriving in 2016. There is still a LOT of work to be done to ensure that happens. The knowledge, the will and the land is there, it is now the funding which is crucial. Public donations will play an important role, to ensure that older elephants and those needing medical care can be properly looked after.

The organisation already has charitable status in Belgium and French registration is pending. It is supported by an advisory team from around the world, people with a wealth of knowledge about elephants and their care.

Although people will not be allowed to roam freely in the park, there will be guided visits, viewing areas, educational workshops for school and the public, and even the chance to make paper out of elephant poo!

If you want to help this incredible facility succeed, please hop on board. Visit their website, share this post, tell your friends. Become a Friend of Elephant Haven. Have a look at their website or like their facebook page. The world would be a much sadder place without ellies, for us and our children…..

Elephants Chiang Mai  Thailand
A world without elephants would be a very sad place :(. Picture kindly supplied by Saxon Brown,
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4 Replies to “Europe’s first Elephant Sanctuary”

  1. This is such a fantastic cause, but it won’t happen without a huge amount of support, so many people are working so hard to try to make this happen, evey donation, no matter how small makes a difference, please give!!

    1. You are right Fiona, a lot of work and a lot of financial support goes into these things. And people do care when they know about something like this x

  2. These are great news and I’m happy to see that someone decided to be involved in such a great project. I’ll be more than happy to spread the word!

    1. Great, thank you! The founders are a dedicated pair, and it’s amazing what dedication can achieve! Happy 2015.

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