South Carolina

A big goodbye: Elephants leaving Riverbanks Zoo. Here’s what’s coming in

Riverbanks Zoo will soon say goodbye to one of its favorite longtime exhibits.

The zoo announced Wednesday that it will “soon bid a bittersweet farewell” to its two elephants, Belle and Robin, to make way for a new exhibit: the Southern white rhinoceros.

The zoo is working with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums African Elephant Species Survival Plan to find a new herd for 48-year-old Robin and 37-year-old Belle, and the move will enable them to be part of “a larger group in a more social environment,” according to a release.

Both Robin and Belle are considered older for female African elephants living in managed populations, whose average life is 17 years for those born in zoos, National Geographic reported.

“The decision to move Robin and Belle was not easy, but it is the right decision for the animals and Riverbanks,” John Davis, the zoo’s director of animal care and welfare, said in a news release. “There is no doubt that Robin and Belle will be missed by our staff, our members, and the community.”

Belle came to Riverbanks from the Columbus Zoo in 2001 and Robin in 2007 from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, according to Riverbanks. They are among 13 African elephants that have lived at the zoo since 1973.

It’s possible an elephant exhibit could return to Riverbanks in the future.

“It’s certainly not out of the question,” Davis said in the news release. “Ideally, we would like to one day manage a breeding group; however, housing male elephants is not an option in our current habitat. Additional space is required to separate males and females during non-breeding season when bulls tend to be solitary animals.”

No timetable has been given for when the elephant exhibit will close. Before it does, zoo officials said they are planning special activities, which will include an event on August 12 — World Elephant Day.

A little more than two years ago, the zoo had four female African elephants.

On May 4, 2017, Robin and Belle’s herdmate, Penny, stumbled, fell and could not get back up, The State reported.

Zoo veterinarians and vet techs were signaled by Robin and Belle who “called and trumpeted” while staying by Penny’s side as she struggled to get up, according to The State. Officials made the decision to “humanely” euthanize the 37-year-old elephant.

There were no signs that Penny was ailing, according to zoo officials. That was not the case in December of 2016, when another of the zoo’s elephants that was suffering from medical issues was euthanized, The State reported.

The 44-year-old Petunia was afflicted with arthritis and some colic, according to zoo officials who euthanized the elephant after she was unable to stand.

Following Petunia’s death, zoo staff allowed the other members of the herd to “visit her body, to mourn her passing in their own way,” because of the tight social structures elephants create in their communities, according to The State.

After the elephants leave, the zoo plans to reintroduce and breed Southern white rhinos, a species last seen at Riverbanks in 1989. The new Southern white rhino exhibit is scheduled to open to the public in a year, in time for the summer of 2020, zoo officials said.

Information on how many Southern white Rhinos will make Riverbanks their home was unavailable.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates less than 22,000 individuals remain in the wild, most of which are found in the grasslands of southern Africa, according to the news release. Northern white rhinos are now extinct in the wild because of poaching.

“We are excited to give our guests the opportunity to connect and interact with these magnificent creatures that, without us, face an uncertain future,” Riverbanks Zoo and Garden President and CEO Thomas Stringfellow said in a news release. “By bringing white rhinos back to Riverbanks, we have a great opportunity to contribute to the sustainability of this species.”

White rhinos can weigh up to 6,000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, but move fast as they’ve been clocked running close to 25 mph, the news release said.

The only land mammal larger than white rhinos are elephants, according to the zoo.

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