KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Three African elephants that have lived at Zoo Knoxville for more than 20 years will be moved to a reserve in Middle Tennessee over the next year, officials announced Monday.

The zoo announced that African elephants Tonka, Jana and Edie will be moving to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., a 3000-acre refuge for elephants who are retired from zoos and circuses.

With all three around 40 years of age, the move will allow them to join a larger group of elephants to ensure their needs for community and companionship are met as they enter the latter stages of their lives.

The elephants will not depart immediately. The zoo will soon start training them to voluntarily enter and stand in a travel crate. When they are comfortable with the routine, Jana and Edie will make the move first followed by Tonka in 2023.

Zoo Knoxville said they will soon launch a master plan that will include, “a vision for the future of elephants in Knoxville with the support of the community.”

“Tonka, Jana and Edie are beloved and treasured, and we will always put their wellbeing and happiness first,” said Lisa New, Zoo Knoxville president and CEO. “Part of caring for each animal entrusted to us is having a life plan from birth to end of life. We are at the stage of that plan when we must now ensure our elephants are in an environment that allows them the social interactions they need as their long-time companions near the end of their lives. It is a decision we did not take lightly, but we know ultimately it is the right one.”

New said the move will also allow them the opportunity to enhance the space and wellbeing of their other large animals.

“Some people might ask, even though we understand why these elephants are transitioning out, why wouldn’t we bring new elephants into Zoo Knoxville,” New said. “The answer is that this was a strategic and deliberate decision to utilize that space for our other large animals, namely the rhino, the giraffe and the zebra, while we develop and implement a longer-term master plan and vision for elephants in the future.”

Weighing in at 15,500 pounds and standing 11 feet tall at the shoulder, Tonka is one of the largest bull elephants in the U.S. He arrived at Zoo Knoxville in 1981 when he was three years old. At 44 years old, Tonka is the second oldest African elephant in the country.

Jana, 42, arrived in Knoxville in 1998 from the Louisville Zoo and 39-year-old Edie has lived at the zoo since 2002.

There has been a long history of African elephants in Knoxville. The Ringling Brothers Circus unexpectedly donated a bull elephant named Old Diamond to the zoo in 1963, prompting a community movement to raise money to build him a home. The zoo welcomed the first two African elephants to be born in the Western Hemisphere in 1978.

A statement from the zoo said they will keep the community up to date on their departure so there is time to wish them farewell.

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Zoo Knoxville is nationally accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The zoo also cited the continuity of veterinary care in consultation with the UT College of Veterinary Medicine and the short amount of travel required for the move among the decisive factors for the move.