Ringling Bros. to Phase Out Use of Circus Elephants

Bowing to criticism from animal rights groups, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will soon end use of their emblematic Indian stars.

Across America through the decades, children of all ages delighted in the arrival of the circus, with its retinue of clowns, acrobats and, most especially, elephants.

But, bowing to criticism from animal rights groups, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Thursday it will phase out use of their emblematic Indian stars.

The company said the giant pachyderms will be gradually withdrawn from the big top, and will be gone from the show altogether by 2018.

Feld Entertainment -- the parent company of America's best known circus -- called the decision an "unprecedented change in the 145-year old 'Greatest Show On Earth'."

Thirteen of the animals currently part of the circus' migrating entourage will be relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, the company said.

It added that the retirement decision "was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers."

Family scions Nicola and Alana Feld, meanwhile, acknowledged that the decision to retire their elephant act is part of an ongoing cultural shift.

"As the circus evolves, we can maintain our focus on elephant conservation while allowing our business to continue to meet shifting consumer preferences," they said.

It once would have been unthinkable to have a big tent circus act without elephants, long a crowd favorite.

Animal rights activists over the years have become more organized, calling attention to what they have said called Ringling Bros. "cruelty" and influencing public opinion in the process.

Local officials also appeared to be paying closer attention to the company's violations of animal welfare rules.

Ringling Bros. in 2011 had to pay a $270,000 fine after receiving citations over how it treated its animals, among other infractions over the years.

An increasing number of US towns and cities also have adopted anti-elephant ordinances forbidding circus acts with elephants to enter the municipal limits.

Meanwhile, Ringling Bros. said it will continue to feature other animals in its acts, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels.

Among Ringling Bros.' most vocal opponents over the years has been People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, which waged an aggressive campaign against animal circus acts.

On its website Thursday, PETA declared "Victory!" against Ringling Bros., on its use of elephants, but the group seemed far from done in its decades-long battle against the Florida-based circus.

"The company's apparent change of heart comes too late for an eight-month-old baby elephant named Riccardo, who was destroyed after he fractured his hind legs when he fell from a circus pedestal; 4-year-old Benjamin, who drowned; and 3-year-old Kenny, who died after he was forced to perform despite being obviously ill," PETA said on its website.

As it makes its pivot away from using elephants, Ringling wants to highlight its conservation efforts, including a refuge in Florida created in 1995 to which the giant animals retire.

The company said it plans "to focus on its Asian elephant conservation programs, both here in North America and through its partnership with the island nation of Sri Lanka."

More than two dozen baby elephants have been born at the enclave since it opened, helping to preserve the endangered animals, Feld Entertainment said.

Elephants perform in a circus act.

Lonesome George - the Last Pinta Island Tortoise

June 25, 2012 -

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise and celebrated symbol of conservation efforts has died. George passed away in the Galapagos Islands with no known offspring after several attempts at breeding George with other similar tortoise species, according to AFP. Lonesome George's longtime caretaker, Fausto Llerena, found the giant tortoise's remains stretched out in the "direction of his watering hole" on Santa Cruz Island, according to AFP. Estimated to be more than 100 years old, the creature's cause of death remains unclear and a necropsy is planned. Lonesome George was discovered on Pinta Island in 1972 at a time when giant tortoises of his type, Geochelone nigra abingdoni, were already believed to be extinct, according to AFP. The following is a look at other at risk animals in the world.

NEWS: Extinct' Giant Tortoise Found on Remote Island

Animals at Risk Since the Endangered Species Act's passage 33 years ago, 1,800 species have been listed as endangered and nine have become extinct. ARKive, a collection of the world's best wildlife films and photographs, gathered together a list of the most at risk animals. The Tiger has undergone large population declines across Cambodia and the rest of Asia, according to ARKive.

Blue Whale (Endangered) Once hunted nearly to extinction, the blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived, growing to around 27 meters (88.5 feet) long and weighing up to an astounding 120 tons. It also produces the loudest call of any animal on Earth. Although hunting of the blue whale was banned in 1966, the recovery of this magnificent marine mammal has been exceptionally slow.

Giant Panda (Endangered) The giant panda is universally admired for its appealing markings and seemingly gentle demeanor. A charismatic conservation icon, the giant panda is threatened by habitat loss, with large areas of China’s natural forest being cleared for agriculture, timber and firewood to meet the needs of the large and growing human population.

Tiger (Endangered) The tiger is one of the most emblematic symbols of conservation today, and its distinctively patterned coat and fearsome reputation make this species instantly recognizable. However, the tiger is facing the grave threat of extinction due to illegal poaching and habitat loss.

Sumatran Orangutan (Critically endangered) The name of the Sumatran orangutan means "person of the forest." The biggest threat to the Sumatran orangutan is the loss of its forest habitat, with around 80 percent of the forest on Sumatra vanishing in recent years due to illegal logging, gold mining and conversion to permanent agriculture, in particular, palm oil plantations.

Black Rhinoceros (Critically endangered) Contrary to its name, the black rhinoceros is actually grey in color. It was hunted almost to the brink of extinction for its impressive horn, which can grow up to 60 cm (23.6 inches), largely due to the demand for horn in Chinese traditional medicine and for traditional dagger handles in Yemen.

Philippine Eagle (Critically endangered) The striking Philippine eagle is the world's largest eagle and also one of the world’s most threatened raptors. The destruction of its habitat is the main cause of its dramatic decline, with vast tracts of tropical forests in the Philippines having been cleared for commercial development and for shifting cultivation.

Kakapo (Critically endangered) As the world’s only flightless parrot, the kakapo is a truly unique bird which is threatened by introduced species in its native home of New Zealand. Conservationists have taken the drastic measure of removing all surviving kakapo to predator-free islands, so far averting the extinction of this remarkable bird.

Hawksbill Turtle (Critically endangered) The hawksbill turtle possesses a beautiful marbled shell, which has been exploited for thousands of years as the sole source of commercial tortoiseshell. Illegal demand for its shell, and for its eggs, meat and even stuffed juveniles as exotic gifts, have led to the dramatic decline of this species over the last century. A further threat to the hawksbill turtle is global climate change.

Lemur Leaf Frog (Critically endangered) The lemur leaf frog is specially adapted for a life in the trees with adhesive pads on its toes. Eggs are laid on leaf surfaces and when hatched the larvae are washed off or fall into water below. This nocturnal tree frog was once considered to be a reasonably common species in Costa Rica, but it is threatened by the loss of its forest habitat and most populations in Costa Rica have recently disappeared.

Scalloped Hammerhead (Endangered) Forming impressively large schools, female scalloped hammerheads gather in the Gulf of California during the day, around underwater mountains known as seamounts, where they perform a wide range of behaviors yet to be understood. The scalloped hammerhead is under threat due to fishing pressures and in particular is a victim of shark finning. ANIMAL PLANET: Endangered Species Guide