New Software Will Help Accredited Zoos’ Protected Elephant Populations Thrive

Today (Sept. 6, 2016), San Diego Zoo Global and the AWARE Institute introduced a new software program designed to help monitor the health of elephant herds in accredited zoos in North America. Forty accredited zoos working to preserve an “ark” of Asian and African elephants in North America are participating in this new program. The new initiative, which represents an ongoing commitment to use scientific knowledge to guide animal care best practices, was shaped by the results of a comprehensive scientific study published in the journal PLOS One at the end of June 2016.

“The research demonstrated that robust feeding and enrichment practices are important to female reproductive health, particularly for African elephants,” said Martha Fischer, chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Elephant Taxon Advisory Group (TAG). “The newly introduced software will help zoos strengthen these practices, which provides an excellent opportunity to enhance both the welfare of individuals and the sustainability of the population.”

The groundbreaking study analyzed the daily lives of 255 elephants in 68 North American zoos, and it determined that specific practices and features of elephant management were particularly important to their physical and behavioral health. This information becomes even more crucial as zoos refocus their efforts to maintain a sustainable population of elephants, protected from the extinction crisis occurring in the wild.

“With the latest distressing news about the sharp decline in the elephant population in Africa, maintaining a breeding population of African elephants in North American zoos becomes even more important,” said Bob Wiese, Ph.D., chief life sciences officer, San Diego Zoo Global. “A key element of this assurance population will be maintaining elephant herds that are healthy and thriving throughout all accredited zoos.

To assist with consistent implementation of best practices, a web-based system of software tools and resources has been created by AWARE Institute, a Portland, Ore.-based consulting group. Similar to lifestyle applications that help humans monitor their wellness plans, the AWARE software system helps zoos plan and evaluate animal management practices—such as feeding, exercise and enrichment—and provides feedback on program strengths and opportunities for improvement.

“This initiative is important because it reflects the openness of our partnering zoos to assess and improve their own practices,” said Cheryl Meehan, Ph.D., director of AWARE Institute. “The unique strength of the Elephant Welfare Initiative is found in the community working together to use science as a foundation from which they will raise the bar for their programs, and enhance the welfare of the elephants in their care.”

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

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