Where the elephants roam
Tehama County could be home to a new preserve for the large creatures
Picture this: a 4,900-acre preserve where African elephants roam in a natural setting. Now envision that preserve right here in the North State, in the northwestern corner of Tehama County. Within the next five years, that could be a reality. The Tembo Preserve is the vision of the Tembo Foundation in collaboration with the Oakland Zoo, and if all goes to plan it will also include a captive-breeding and research center on-site.
The foundation, established by Silicon Valley venture capitalists Roger and Ann McNamee, paid approximately $5 million for the Diamond Ranch property at the beginning of the year, and has earmarked an undisclosed amount of money to cover operational costs for the next 50 to 100 years. The foundation began working with the Tehama County Board of Supervisors before purchasing the ranch. After the purchase, the foundation promised over $200,000 for an environmental impact report, which is slated to begin later this year. It’s hoping the completion of the EIR in the next year and a half will pave the way to barn and building construction, followed by elephants roaming the hills.
“Tehama County is very fortunate to have a combination of terrain that is very conducive to the African elephant and similar to what you will find within their range in Africa,” with its rolling hills and Mediterranean climate, explained Dr. Joel Parrott, CEO of the Oakland Zoo. The foundation and the zoo evaluated sites across the state, including in the Sierra foothills and the Carmel area, before settling on Diamond Ranch, which lies north of Highway 36 and west of Cottonwood, roughly an hour and a half from Chico.
The preserve plans to move African elephants from U.S. zoos to the site, which, with its open spaces and planned facilities, “would allow for normal social structure [by] restoring the family group … that is more matriarchal,” with a mother, her offspring, aunts and cousins together in one group, Parrott said. He noted that herds in U.S. zoos often are unrelated. The preserve also would serve as an education and research center, which is one reason Tehama County Supervisor Steve Chamblin, whose district would be home to the elephants, supports the program.
“I think it’s wonderful that they’re considering Tehama County for something that would be known world-wide,” Chamblin explained. As the EIR is still at least a year from completion, Chamblin refers to the project as a future possibility; Parrott, in contrast, speaks as if it’s already underway.
“I think it’s a win-win for everyone, but we have to get all the proper reports and public review to get to that point,” Chamblin said. He admits that, as the property is historically grazing land, cattle ranchers in his district have raised questions and concerns. Neighbors of the ranch have been in contact with the preserve, which has been doing outreach in the community, he noted. Local children enjoyed an elephant education program at a Red Bluff library over the summer, presented by the Tembo Preserve. Future partnerships with veterinary schools in addition to Northern California elementary and high schools are also a possibility, Chamblin and Parrott said.
“[When] you get elephants that are quite happy, living as normal a life as they would back in Africa, then you’ve got this enormous educational opportunity to then expose people in the U.S. … to the essence of what the elephant is,” Parrott explained. The extent of the education program—which will be limited for safety and habitat concerns, he said—has not been released.
Parrott said he feels the program is a necessary educational tool to help wild elephants. “I can’t imagine a better time to bring the elephant story to the American public than right now, because of the ivory trade and the collapse of so many [elephant] populations in Africa because of slaughter [in search of ivory],” Parrott said.
In mid-August, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers in the last three years, leaving the total population at about 450,000, Parrott estimated. Ivory is most often sent to Asia, particularly China and Hong Kong—but the United States is the second-largest market for ivory, said Parrott, who is working to introduce a state bill in the fall that would ban ivory in California. Education, like that provided by the Tembo Preserve, is a key component to ending the trade, he said.
Yet, not everyone is convinced the preserve is good for the overall population of elephants.
“We don’t need elephants in North America. We need them in Africa and India, where they’re from,” said Chico-based wildlife biologist and former zookeeper Dawn Garcia. “In my mind, where all that money needs to go is on the ground [in Africa], where they can protect the elephants.”
Garcia is an active opponent to captive-breeding programs, which she believes perpetuate the problem of making the next generation of elephants into a potentially lucrative public spectacle, rather than rescue animals with an educational story to share. She shared concerns that large elephants may pose an issue for native wildlife and flora and, as the matriarchal structure will require the animals to be related, only a small handful of animals will be removed from their small-enclosure homes at zoos.
“The elephants in Africa and India need the help. We don’t need this captive population of elephants in Tehama County,” Garcia said.
Parrott countered that the animals that do make it to the preserve will “live a very happy, very contented, high-quality elephant life” and noted that the EIR will include mitigations, should Tehama County determine that the elephants may damage the flora and fauna.