Carrie Johnson’s charity has announced it will fly a herd of elephants from Kent to Kenya in a “world first” rewilding project. The Aspinall Foundation will transport a total of 13 elephants (weighing 25 tonnes) back to Africa.
This project is close to Mrs Johnson’s heart, as elephants are her favourite animal and she was recently seen taking her son Wilfred to see the wooden elephants in Green Park, which are there to support charities for the big beasts abroad.
The mission to return the elephants to Kenya has been a gruelling one which has taken months to organise and plan. The charity had to purchase purpose made crates to transport the animals, and it took the animals some time to get used to their travelling enclosures.
Elephants are sensitive animals and need to be treated carefully when being transported.
Elephants have been rewilded in the past but mainly in South Asia from parks and sanctuaries in the same or neighbouring countries. Long distance journeys are not usually attempted.
In the 1980s, there was an infamous attempt to transfer an African elephant from London Zoo a few miles away to Whipsnade. After being kept in its travelling crate too long, the elephant collapsed and later died.
Damian Aspinall, chairman of The Aspinall Foundation, said: “This is an incredibly exciting project and a genuine world-first. As with any conservation project of this magnitude, there are obviously big risks, but we consider them well worth it to get these magnificent elephants back into the wild where they belong.
“By supporting the project, members of the public will be part of conservation history, helping to restore an iconic species to its ancestral homeland.
“If this is successful, I would love to see elephants held in captivity all over the world be rewilded too.”
The herd of 13 elephants, which includes three calves, is currently in an eight acre enclosure at Howletts Wild Animal Park.
The Aspinall Foundation believes that no elephant should be in captivity and it hopes to make sure that all elephants in its parks are taken to their ancestral homelands.
The Government also currently plans to ban the keeping of elephants in zoos, and is using the Aspinall Foundation as an example of a conservation zoo which should be used as inspiration for other wildlife parks.
Campaigners have long argued that elephants suffer from mental health difficulties in captivity and have their lifespan curtailed by decades. They suffer from physical diseases including arthritis and are prevented from taking part in their natural behaviours.
Campaigners including Born Free actress Virginia McKenna have long campaigned for an end to elephants in captivity, and London Zoo phased them out in 2001.
Ivory bearing animals | Creatures killed for their tusks
It is hoped that the Aspinall elephants will reproduce well in the wild and become an important breeding herd. Two sites in the south of Kenya are currently under consideration.
The Aspinall foundation is working with the Shedrick Wildlife Trust to help the animals with the transition to the wild.
Angela Sheldrick, CEO of the trust, said: "Since the 1970s we have been helping elephants. Providing a wild future to more than 260 rescued orphans and operating extensive protection projects to ensure they, their wildborn babies and their wild kin are best protected throughout their lives.
"We look forward to offering that same opportunity to these 13 elephants when they step foot on African soil, home where they belong and able to live wild and free as nature intended."