- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

NEW YORK — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus claims to be the “greatest show on earth,” but it also is a leader in elephant conservation through a program now in its second

generation of Asian pachyderms.

Ringling has been targeted by animal rights groups in recent years with charges of elephant mistreatment, but it never has been found in violation of the Animal Welfare Act for abuse or neglect of its animals. The circus points with pride to its $5 million, 200-acre Ringling Bros. Elephant Conservation Center in Polk County, Fla., when refuting such charges.

Since the early 1990s, Ringling has bred 16 elephants in addition to providing facilities at the center for scientific study of the species and retirement for elderly elephants that often live 60 or 70 years. The latest elephant bred by the program is Riccardo, who weighed in at 232 pounds when he was born Dec. 5.

Riccardo is the first offspring of two elephants born into the Ringling program, Shirley and Romeo, thus establishing a pattern of second-generation birth at the center where three more calves are on the way. Five calves have been born there in the past three years, a record for any group of captive elephants in the Western world.

“The second-generation birth represents unprecedented success in our strides toward conservation of the species, creating a more diverse gene pool and additional opportunities to share our work and the knowledge gained worldwide,” said Kenneth Feld, chief executive officer and chairman of Feld Entertainment, owner of the circus. “We are living up to our credo — ‘Endangered species? Not if we can help it.’”

John Kirtland, director of animal stewardship for Feld Entertainment, warned that without “monumental efforts,” Asian elephants could cease to exist in the wild in the next two decades because of the destruction of their naturalhabitat throughout SoutheastAsia and the depredation wreaked by ivory poachers.

“The size of our elephant population and the diversity of our gene pool increases research opportunities for both domestic and international scientists,” Mr. Kirtland said.

“It is critical to the survival of the species that Ringling continues to work with others around the world who are focusing on the severity of the problem. With the assistance of human care in successful breeding programs, it is apparent that elephant populations outside Asia do play a critical role in conserving the entire Asian elephant species.”

Mr. Kirtland said fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants exist in the world (fewer than 300 of them are in the United States), compared with 200,000 a century ago, and the number is dwindling swiftly as the population of Asian elephants in North American zoos is aging rapidly toward extinction.

Asian elephants have been on the endangered-species list since 1976. Since then, Ringling has developed the largest and most genetically diverse herd outside Asia, numbering about 50 elephants.

Mr. Kirtland said the Asian elephants’ African cousins also are considered threatened, but there are 10 times more of them than there are Asian elephants.

Ringling shares its knowledge of elephants with veterinary and scientific communities worldwide and participates in conservation efforts in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. It also provides companion Asian elephants to U.S. zoos when needed to maintain their dwindling populations, because artificial insemination has proved to be difficult.

Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo and an elephant preservation activist, said the Ringling program was remarkable for what it had accomplished since the opening of the Florida center in 1995.

“Second-generation births in captive animal-management programs are one indication that the biological and social needs of the individual animals are being appropriately addressed,” Mr. Keele said. “It also reflects the level of commitment that Ringling has made to a long-term propagation program.”

Ringling has been exhibiting elephants and using them as performers in its shows for 134 years.

The average circus elephant eats 150 to 200 pounds of hay a day and consumes 30 to 50 gallons of water. A male elephant weighs an average of 10,000 to 12,000 pounds, and the female weighs about 2,000 pounds less. The female has a gestation period of 22 months before giving birth, the longest in the animal kingdom.

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