Dispatches from the Field: The Elephant Sanctuary

When you think of an elephant’s habitat, what comes to mind? Our guess is that Tennessee is low on your list. However, to the surprise of many, Hohenwald, TN is home to eleven retired elephants. Founded in 1995, The Elephant Sanctuary is the nation’s largest natural-habitat refuge caring specifically for Asian and African elephants. Jackie and I (Bethany) took a tour of The Elephant Discovery Center at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. While the elephants’ habitat is not open to the public, The Elephant Sanctuary’s goal is to bring awareness to the conservation of elephants’ natural habitat and the complex issues that arise from living in captivity. We are excited to bring you into our day at The Discovery Center and share their enduring commitment to sustainability and conservation.


The Importance of Elephant Conservation 

Elephants are a keystone species. Keystone speciesmay not be the largest or most plentiful species in an ecological community, but if a keystone is removed, it sets off a chain of events that turns the structure and biodiversity of its habitat into something very different.” (Source: NRDC)

For example, elephants are intertwined in spreading certain tree species via their dung, whose fruit they and other animals rely on, pointing to the fragile interdependence of these ecosystems. A direct example of this seed-spreading phenomenon happens at The Elephant Sanctuary throughout the fall holiday season. The surrounding community brings pumpkins for the elephants to eat, resulting in pumpkin patches scattered across the grounds. This full-circle event keeps pumpkins out of landfills and provides food for the elephants. 


For elephants in the wild, the accumulation of plastic has a resulting negative impact on their environments. Plastic waste found in trash dumps bordering human communities and forests where elephants live results in the elephants ingesting plastics and many other damaging, non-digestible items. The plastic then released into these natural habitats can directly damage the environment as well as other species living there.

The Challenges Elephants Face

Walking upwards of 50 miles a day, a life in captivity is not able to provide a proper replication of their life in the wild. Elephants rescued from tourism entertainment have typically been treated with severe negative reinforcement and lack the normal social development and bonds they would’ve developed in the wild. These incredibly intelligent and social animals often suffer from behavioral, psychological, and physical health issues as a result. Additionally, due to rising global temperatures, drought, and elephants' particular sensitivity to heat, heat stroke is now considered one of the leading causes of death among elephants. 

With the loss of wild elephants to poaching, capture, land conversion, and agricultural development, their habitats also face major implications. The continued clearing of lands for various human activities and industry results in dwindling sources of vegetation and water. 

From maintenance to veterinary services, the Sanctuary team works tirelessly to address the safety and holistic well-being of its elephants. Vet care is provided to each elephant if they choose to opt in. The Elephant Sanctuary never forces their elephants to do anything they do not want to do. Sanctuary elephants have over 3,000 acres to roam and forest and plenty of healthy fruit to eat. The Elephant Sanctuary’s commitment to sustainability efforts meets the same high standard they apply to their care.

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The Elephant Sanctuary’s Sustainability Efforts

Sustainability initiatives stretch across each division of the organization from a wood-burning stove to heat the floors of the elephant barns in the winter to a robust staff-led recycling system. Puzzle toys and enrichment items for the elephants are made from fully recycled materials like old climbing rope donated by Climb Nashville and tires donated from a local auto shop. The Sanctuary offsets electricity consumption using solar panels on the property and is continuously updating its recycling system. They are actively working on furthering waste reduction by purchasing refillable and bulk items. Facilities makes a concentrated effort to reduce, if not entirely remove, the need for any new infrastructure by intentionally repurposing equipment and materials on-site. 

Another example of The Elephant Sanctuary’s strides in sustainability is when the staff switched from drinking Folgers coffee to Bongo Java’s organic, Fairtrade Elephant Sanctuary Roast. The Sanctuary had been selling the roast at The Discovery Center and during a Sustainability Committee meeting, realized they needed to better practice what they preach and made the internal office switch. The connection between Urban Green Lab and these two organizations led to a dually-hosted Sustainability Roundtable, where businesses exchange best practices, troubleshoot obstacles, and share their own sustainability journey. Throughout three years of partnership with Urban Green Lab, The Elephant Sanctuary has taken part in multiple sustainability trainings for their staff, most recently on the effects of plastic pollution, and has received Silver certification through Urban Green Lab Certification

We have nothing but admiration for The Elephant Sanctuary and the work they are doing. Their team is made up of exceptionally knowledgeable and selfless individuals, united in a common goal of providing safety and security to the elephants in their care, educating the public, and promoting conservation every step of the way. 

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How You Can Get Involved

To remain a true sanctuary, the elephants are not accessible to the public, but we highly suggest using the Ele Cam for glimpses into the elephants’ lives. Select a pledge with The Elephant Sanctuary and take action to contribute however you can. Stay up to date on the happenings at The Elephant Sanctuary by subscribing to their Ele News email updates. The journey of sustainability can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. However, by taking the actionable steps that work for you, we can collectively make a positive impact on people, the planet, and everything that calls Earth home.  

Take a look at The Elephant Sanctuary/Bongo Java Roundtable Recap!

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