Published: 22:00, 05 July 2021
| Updated: 16:32, 06 July 2021
The entire herd of elephants at Howletts Wild Animal Park will soon be leaving Kent for a new life in the wild, it has been revealed.
In what will be an emotional farewell for keepers and park visitors, the departure of the 13-strong group will spell the end of an era at the Canterbury attraction.
The African elephants are among the best-loved animals at Howletts and their presence has brought many a smile to hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years.
But park bosses say the gentle giants do not belong in east Kent, and deserve to live their life in their ancestral homeland - an ambition the Aspinall Foundation is planning to accomplish.
The charity, which also runs Port Lympne, has cared for - and bred - elephants for decades, with Howletts being home to the largest herd in the UK.
That title will soon however become a thing of the past when the group, which includes three calves, is flown to southern Kenya.
The logistics of that task - flying 13 of the largest land mammals 4,400 miles across the globe - will be a incredibly complex procedure for the team, and one which comes with "big risks".
But the charity is confident the scheme will be a great success, and a trailblazer for other zoos to follow suit.
A timescale for the groundbreaking project, which will be the very first time a herd of elephants has been rewilded anywhere in the world, has not yet been revealed.
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 being rewilded too.”
With elephants having also departed Port Lympne a few years ago, the impending end of captivity at Howletts means Kent will no longer be a home to any elephants.
Mr Aspinall previously said how he backs the idea of zoos being phased out within 30 years and stated that parents should not be taking their children to visit them.
The eight-acre elephant enclosure at Howletts benefited from a paddock expansion in 2007, and is one of the most viewed areas of the park.
The 13-strong herd leaving for Africa includes two inter-related families but the charity's intention is to rewild them as one larger group.
The eldest of the herd was born in 1987, while the youngest was welcomed in March last year.
Two different sites in Kenya are currently being considered, with both described as having the "perfect natural conditions for the elephants".
For the project, the Aspinall Foundation is working with The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Kenya Wildlife Service.