Angus, the world's biggest captive elephant, has died only a month before he was to be flown from Canada to South Africa, his homeland, and set free in a game reserve.
The 27-year-old elephant, who weighed more than seven tonnes, or as much as six small cars, was found dead on the floor of his heated barn on Sunday evening by his trainer and owner, Michael Hackenberger.
Angus was the star attraction of the Bowmanville Zoo, just east of Toronto, where he had lived for 20 years and given rides to thousands of children.
He died about 30 hours after being given a sedative called Xylazine. The goal was to test the animal's reaction to the drug in case he became agitated during the 24-hour flight to South Africa and had to be calmed down.
"We don't know what happened," Mr. Hackenberger said.
"He looked absolutely normal after the sedative wore off on Saturday and he was fine on Sunday. This is tragic. I've been crying like a baby."
An autopsy is to be performed on Angus today by veterinarians from the Toronto Zoo and Guelph University's Ontario Veterinary College. Mr. Hackenberger said he does not believe the sedative, which has been used on elephants and other wild animals since the 1960s, caused the death.
Angus's death marks the end of a two-year effort to send the animal home. He was born in South Africa's Kruger National Park, was captured at two years old and had stints in Texas and Quebec zoos before the Bomanville adopted him in 1986. Angus, who ate 200 kilograms of food (mostly hay) and drank 800 litres of water a day, became five times heavier since that date.
For years, Angus was a performing elephant, touring with Mr. Hackenberger, an animal nutritionist by training, in the Garden Brothers Circus and other circuses. The two became a great team. If the elephant truck and trailer got stuck in mud, Angus would push them out.
The elephant loved the water. "When we were travelling in the Gaspé once, Angus took a swim in the St. Lawrence. Some Beluga whales came by and were swimming four to five feet from him," Mr. Hackenberger said in an interview last year. "It was a magical moment."
Angus became the best-known elephant in Canada. As the zoo mascot, he visited schools and was in parades, festivals and films. He was a regular at the Canadian National Exhibition.
In recent years, Mr. Hackenberger and his wife, Wendy Korver, the zoo veterinarian, realized the elephant needed his freedom. He was becoming too big for the little Bowmanville Zoo and his periods of musth -- the Persian word for "drunk" -- were becoming longer and longer. When an elephant is in musth, its testosterone levels rise by 50 times or more, making the animal temperamental, at best, and dangerous and almost impossible to control, at worst.
That's when the idea was hatched to send Angus home. Mr. Hackenberger never saw the repatriation as a conservation attempt; in some parts of Africa, elephants are being culled. "This was all about giving Angus the freedom he didn't have in Canada," he said. "This was about doing what was best for the elephant."
It was to be the first elephant repatriation from North America by air. The few African elephants that have returned have gone by ocean freighter.
In preparation, Angus was put on a vaccine called GnRH, produced in the Netherlands, to control his testosterone levels. He had been on the vaccine for a year or so, to great success, Dr. Korver said.
A private game reserve called Pumba, in South Africa's Malari Free Eastern Cape, near Port Elizabeth, agreed to take Angus. There, he would join 14 other elephants. Toronto filmmakers Cream Productions agreed to film a two-hour, $500,000 documentary on Angus's return. The documentary, called A Giant's Walk Home, was to air on the Animal Planet network in the United States.
"The documentary was to be about the science and logistics of getting Angus home safely," said David Brady, Cream's executive producer. "But it was also to be an emotional story about a man and an elephant who became something like a member of the family. It was to document a bittersweet moment, like when a father sends his son off to university."
Mr. Hackenberger booked a Ukrainian-built Antonov 124, the world's second-biggest plane, to take Angus to South Africa. The jet, developed as a military freighter to carry main battle tanks, can carry 132 tonnes, the equivalent of 18 elephants the size of Angus.
The elephant was to make the journey inside a reinforced truck trailer. His ears were to be plugged because of the Antonov's deafening noise. "I was going to put a wireless remote into one ear so he could hear my commands," Mr. Hackenberger said.
Almost everything was in place by last weekend. But before the trip, Dr. Korver, with the assistance of Glenn Pettifer, a highly experienced consultant veterinarian who specializes in animal anesthesiology and pain management, wanted to test a sedative on Angus.
Xylazine is a common drug. Both Dr. Korver and Dr. Pettifer had used it many times on animals, including horses. Angus was injected with 100 milligrams of the sedative late Saturday afternoon through an intravenous catheter in his left ear. The camera crew from Cream Productions, led by director Rob Quartly, recorded the event.
Unless you knew Angus, it was hard to tell he was sedated. He simply stopped eating and his trunk went limp, hanging straight down. His eyes went half shut now and again. His heartbeat was normal throughout. Within 20 minutes, he was alert and eating again. Dr. Korver and Dr. Pettifer declared the trial a success.
Dr. Korver doesn't think the sedative is responsible for Angus's death. "If it was responsible, it probably would have killed him during or shortly after the injection," she said. "He died 30 hours later, and there was no sign of any trauma. He just lay down and died."
One theory is that Angus died of a blot clot in the brain, although the truth won't be known until the autopsy is completed.
Not all the news was tragic at the Bowmanville Zoo on Sunday. That same evening, a lioness named Mapenzie gave birth to four cubs.