Sofie & Tony Co-Founder of the Elephant Haven Sanctuary


Elephant Haven is a story about elephants – hardly surprising, is it? But it’s also a story about people who are committed to offering these venerable wild mammals a place to live once the confinement of the circus or zoo is over. It is a united team, composed of numerous volunteers. It is also, and above all, Sofie and Tony, the founders. Let’s go and meet them…



A haven of peace for elephants


Elephant Haven is the first sanctuary of its kind for zoo and circus elephants in Europe.

Why a sanctuary? As a result of a positive evolution in the way we consider wild animals, more and more European countries are prohibiting their presence in circuses, including that of elephants. However, it is not always possible to enable them to return to their country of origin and there is currently no place in Europe to welcome these retired pachyderms.


Sofie and Tony: from Antwerp…to Limousin


Creating from scratch, a 93-acre area in which elephants can be saved, re-socialised and rehabilitated in their twilight years…this is the dream that began to take form a few years ago in the entrepreneurial spirit of Sofie Goetghebeur and Tony Verhulst, the founders of Elephant Haven. A dream that soon blossomed into a rather atypical project. And above all, a major challenge. But that came nowhere near to dampening the serene enthusiasm of these two Belgian zookeepers!

After more than 20 years of loyal service at the Antwerp Zoo and not speaking a single word of French, they decided in 2014 to quit everything for…Bussière-Galant…south of Limoges…in the Limousin! The Elephant Haven adventure could begin. A new start, but nothing like retirement! When asked how much time they dedicate to their project: “7 days a week since the beginning, and that with all our heart.” A very new, and very full life. It takes a lot of energy to offer these pachyderms a place that befits their magnificence!


The energy of the body and mind


Driven by a genuine passion and respect for elephants, Sofie and Tony have put a lot of effort into giving life to their project and offering a peaceful and welcoming home for their retired residents.

Visible effort to put up the fences, build the stables or to plant trees and poles. Behind the scenes, another kind of effort to master the delights of administrative requirements: regulations, authorisations, discussions, and…the few occasional frustrations! But always with the same determination, and after been granted all authorisations necessary in 2018, that led to this fundamental milestone in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, when they were finished to host three female elephants. Now, the two carers are more eager than ever to welcome the first elephant and raise more awareness about this precious species amongst the public. (from a distance and without disturbing the elephants of course)

Next step? Convincing owners to entrust their animals to them as elephant owners have proven to be somewhat reluctant…


The energy of a dedicated team


When Sofie and Tony speak about their project, they always highlight the men and women who make it happen: “It’s a veritable human adventure, where each person helps in their own area of expertise. This is what, in our eyes, makes this project so unique and beautiful.”

These persons…First of all, a wonderful team of volunteers who provide “tremendous help on a daily basis, at all levels“, Sofie points out. But also an advisory board, experts and international veterinarians. Elephant Haven is a complete team in which generosity combines with expertise to offer the pachyderms the highest standards of care.


The energy of giving


The founding couple put their savings into the project, but Tony underlines that all this would never have been possible “without the help of foundations, partners and donors“. It is important to point out that this type of initiative incurs significant costs. Sofie and Tony regularly call for donations to buy equipment as well as medicine and food for the elephants. Indeed, an elephant likes his food:  as the world’s largest herbivore, it eats no less than 20 tons of hay a year!



You too wish to contribute to this exciting project? Don’t hesitate to make a donation here. Each action counts, and none is too small for these majestic pachyderms!




P.S. And if you’re wondering “Why the Limousin?!?” Here is Sofie’s answer! “There is a great balance for elephants here: plenty of water, hay, edible trees and gentle hills.” Food, drink, preserved nature…a return to basics that actually gives food for thought 😊



[1] In full name, European Elephant Sanctuary (EHEES)



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