Eleven Asian elephants from one of the United States' largest circus companies, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, have performed for the last time before going into retirement two years ahead of schedule.

After decades of protests by animal rights activists, Ringling Bros' parent company Feld Entertainment announced last March that it would retire its elephant acts by 2018.

But this year, Feld said the elephants would be moved by May to the company's elephant conservation centre in Florida.

The pachyderms, who are a highlight of "The Greatest Show on Earth," performed for the last time in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania before joining 29 other elephants at the centre.


In their final act, livestreamed on Facebook and the Ringling website, the elephants entered the arena to cheers from the crowd in Providence, Rhode Island.

"Tonight is a very special night, tonight we are all witnessing history as our nation's largest living legends take to the arena floor for their final bow," declared the ring master as the elephants took to the floor.

"Join us in a resounding farewell to most majestic creatures on the face of the earth, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey's performing pachyderms."

The Providence show featured elephants walking in a circle holding each other's tails, twirling in circles, standing on a pedestal and putting their feet on one another's backs, among other tricks.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has warned that elephants in the conservation centre are shackled and threatened with bullhooks - metal rods with pointed hooks on the end.

"Conditions at Ringling's breeding compound are nearly as bad as they are on the road," PETA said, claiming that the animals are chained for most of the day.

Videos and photos circulated for years by PETA and other rights groups show Ringling Bros' circus wranglers using electric shocks to train baby elephants and beating adults with whips and bull hooks.