How to Move Your Elephant During a Pandemic

After decades in captivity and a 1,700-mile road trip from Argentina into Brazil, an Asian elephant named Mara finally gained a chance to roam

The border between Argentina and Brazil had been closed by the coronavirus pandemic for nearly two months when, in early May, an unusual convoy approached the checkpoint in Puerto Iguazú. There were 15 people, all of whom had gone days with little sleep, and six vehicles, including a crane and a large truck.

Behind the truck was a specialized transport box.

Inside the box was an elephant.

The elephant’s name was Mara. She was around 50 years old, and had spent the last two and a half decades of her life in a dusty zoo enclosure in the Palermo neighborhood of central Buenos Aires. The zoo was once a centerpiece of the city’s grand Victorian parks, a symbol of its prestige. There was, as Argentina’s vice president observed in 1888, no such thing as a major city that did not have a zoo.

Mara at the Buenos Aires zoo. Her enclosure was built in 1904 to resemble a Hindu temple of elephants in Mumbai.

In the fashion of the time, Mara’s enclosure was built to look like the romantic ruins of a Hindu temple. But for her it was a difficult home, small and tense, crowded with two other elephants. They were African elephants, a different species than Mara, who is an Asian elephant, and because they did not get along, keepers made sure they never shared their small space — swapping them back and forth between the indoor and outdoor sections of the enclosure every day. Mara spent a lot of time standing inside, although elephants need to walk a lot to digest properly and to keep their feet healthy, and she spent a lot of time alone, although elephants are deeply social. She often spent hours swaying her head in a circle, a stereotypic behavior considered a sign of stress in captive elephants. Visitors watched the same behavior in a polar bear, Winner, before he died in a heat wave in 2012. A few years later, two of the zoo’s sea lions died within days of each other.

People began to protest that something had to be done — not just for Mara, but for all the animals, some 2,500 of them as of 2016, that were squeezed onto just 42 acres. One protest group, SinZoo, said that it was petitioning “for the liberty of the prisoners in Palermo.” The city, which owned the land, decided to step in and take over management from the private company that had been running the zoo. But by then, said Tomás Sciolla, who became the new wildlife and conservation manager, the protests had raised a question that the city had to take seriously: Was it enough to improve the lives of animals that still lived in a zoo? Had its view of animals and their role in society changed at all since 1888?

“Are we only going to provide better conditions?” he asked. “Or do we want to do something a little more profound?”

Mara, during her time in the circus, sometimes resisted performing, and even killed a trainer.

Mara receiving foot care at the zoo. Because she was confined, her feet required extra attention to keep healthy and disease-free.

Kuky, one of two African elephants still living in the Buenos Aires zoo, playing with a tire.

A depiction of Mara in a 1970 poster advertising the South American Circus.

Two years before, in 2014, Argentina had become the first country to recognize a great ape — an orangutan named Sandra, also a resident of the Buenos Aires zoo — as a nonhuman person with legal rights of her own. Now a planning committee, convened to determine what was next for her neighbors, decided it should start by examining the zoo’s most fundamental assumptions. “Do we want a zoo?” Mr. Sciolla asked. “Is that something that’s aligned with how we think animals should be respected?” The answer they came to was no.

The city decided that the land should transition to an “ecopark,” where children could learn about conservation and native animals could be rehabilitated but would not live their lives on display. The committee began researching how it could send the zoo’s current animals away, to new homes in sanctuaries and nature reserves. Some were too old or ill to move, and some animals died. But, as the logistics came together, many others left: three spectacled bears to an animal sanctuary in Colorado; Sandra the orangutan to the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Fla. By this spring, 860 animals had been relocated. Mara would be number 861.

The committee made a plan to move her to Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, a 2,800-acre compound recently established in the state of Mato Grosso. But to relocate an elephant 1,700 miles across international borders requires a great deal of paperwork. (This is to guard against the smuggling and laundering of animals, especially endangered species.) In Mara’s case, getting permits meant proving where she was born and where she had lived before she came to the zoo in 1995. Then, she had been confiscated from a circus, Circo Rodas, because of poor treatment. But where had her life taken her before that?

Mara, born in India in a work camp, had been in captivity all her life.

On moving day, Mara was escorted into a special transport box for the journey to Brazil.

A sanitary control stop at the border of Misiones Province in northeastern Argentina. Mara’s handlers had to provide paperwork and undergo a temperature check and disinfection.

A stop for water and grass. Mara was on a reduced diet for the journey; Asian elephants typically eat 160 to 330 pounds of food a day.

Media attention to Mara’s case got the public involved, and people came forward with information. The Tejedor family, which once ran a number of circuses, reported that in the early 1970s they had purchased Mara, along with two other elephants, from Tierpark Hagenbeck, a zoo in Hamburg, Germany; it turned out this zoo had acquired her at a young age from India, where she had been born into captivity at a work camp. Victor Veira Tejedor, whose grandfather and great-uncle owned the circus that bought her, remembered Mara as a member of the family, hungry for attention and affection.

“She’s a very special being,” he said. For years, Mara traveled with the family from town to town in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, performing for crowds. Old photos show her as a baby, with two men leaning on her back; grown up and doing tricks on a little stool while wearing a headdress; balancing on her front feet and her trunk inside an empty circus tent.

Mr. Veira’s family left the circus business in 1980, when he was 12, and sold Mara to Circo Rodas. “That’s when things started to get ugly for her,” Mr. Sciolla said: Mara didn’t “behave”—“because what is ‘behaving’ for an elephant that’s in captivity and being forced to perform?” The new circus hired Mara’s former trainer to get her to start performing again. But Mara, perhaps feeling threatened, killed him. “It’s not a lie that elephants do not forget,” Mr. Sciolla said. Before she was confiscated and taken to live at the zoo, she was found chained in a parking lot.

Dawn at Dourados in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.

A meal for Mara at a stop in Argentina.

Marcos Flores, one of Mara’s caregivers, checked in with her while at a stop at Argentine customs.

Onlookers at a customs stop in Foz de Iguaçú, Brazil.

“She’s a very special being,” said Victor Veira Tejidor, whose grandfather and great-uncle owned a circus that bought her.

Yohana, a veterinarian with Mara’s entourage, chatted with Mara on a stop in Brazil.

But the zoo was only a relative improvement in conditions, and after two and a half decades, Mr. Sciolla was desperate to get Mara out. The departure plan required intense coordination with multiple ministries and two national governments, but at last, the pieces fell into place: Mara would finally move to the sanctuary in Brazil in March. “And of course, then Covid-19 started,” Mr. Sciolla said.

Argentina imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in Latin America, and the original plan had to be scrapped. But the window for the hard-won permits for moving Mara was closing fast. Mr. Sciolla, who has a large picture of Mara hanging in his apartment, found himself making a strange case on the phone with a parade of government officials. “I know you’re dealing with a crisis,” he told them. “But we need to translocate this elephant.” He was moved by how eager the officials were to help make that possible.

And so Mara, after a long and complicated life, found herself in a box, in a pandemic, waiting at the closed border between nations. Only four of the humans were allowed to cross with her and make the final journey to the sanctuary. But once the smaller party was safely through the border, Mr. Sciolla began to feel some relief from, as he put it, “all the pressures you feel when you’re thousands of kilometers from home with an elephant.”

There was one final barrier — moving the exhausted elephant onto a truck that could handle the last 40 miles of rough road — and finally the box arrived to open space, grass and trees. Mr. Sciolla got choked up when he remembered it. “Everything was worth it when you see that animal that has spent most of her life in an unnatural way connecting with her essence and what she is,” he said. “For her, it took a long time.”

Mara’s convoy on a road in Brazil where crops and native vegetation meet.

Mara’s route, nearly 1,700 miles to Chapada dos Guimarães in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Even in retirement, Mara has fans.

Mara arriving at last to open space, grass and trees.

An aerial view of the elephant sanctuary in Chapada dos Guimarães, Mara’s new home.

Mara quickly bonded with another Asian elephant named Rana. Their connection was so instant and intense that some people present wondered if they had known each other in their childhoods — could Rana been one of the three brought from Hamburg all those years ago? Mr. Veira was doubtful, but he found it moving to watch videos of Mara exploring her new home all these decades after their time traveling together.

“It’s lovely to see her in a place like she should have been all along,” he said. These days, his family members who are still in the circus industry have long since removed animals from their acts. “It would be madness to be traveling around with a circus elephant now,” he said — the times had changed, and so had the understanding of what people owe to animals.

In Brazil, Scott Blais, a co-founder of the sanctuary, watched Mara explore her new relationships with the other elephants. “She was labeled a killer,” he said, but he had come to see her as “a ball of insecurity” who had been starving for interaction.

As soon as Mara was taken out of her box and placed in an enclosure at the sanctuary to acclimate, she covered herself in soil, to help regulate her body temperature and fend off parasites.
A murky puddle at the sanctuary tinged orange by the soil.
Scott Blais, co-founder of the elephant sanctuary.

Mr. Blais was working on the permitting to bring in more elephants, including from a zoo in Mendoza, Argentina, that had, after a long string of deaths amid poor conditions, also decided to rethink its purpose: It was closing exhibits and making plans to send animals elsewhere. One of the elephants he was most eager to relocate would be leaving her small concrete enclosure for the first time since she was born there 22 years ago.

Still, Mr. Blais liked to think of the sanctuary as a temporary measure, a step in what he hoped would be a continuing re-evaluation of how people think about our relationships with animals. Some future day, he imagined, would be “the happiest day of my life”: the day there are no more captive elephants that need to be moved there.

For now, though, there was Mara — out of the box, the circus and the zoo — stretching her legs, scratching her back on trees, making a friend.

Mara, newly installed at the sanctuary.