A local conservation biologist has confirmed what millions of greater Portland residents have already seen: Elephant Lands, the Oregon Zoo’s visionary new home for pachyderms, has stepped up the game when it comes to elephant welfare.
At an Aug. 7 Metro Council work session held at the zoo, Portland State University researcher Sharon Glaeser summarized the results of a four-year study aimed at gauging the effectiveness of Elephant Lands in promoting activity and well-being among the herd.
Among her conclusions: “The elephants are taking more steps, in more places, than ever before.”
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Over the past six years, elephants at the zoo have been logging their steps by wearing motion-measuring ankle bracelets. Like human Fitbits, but much more sturdy and robust, the anklets use GPS data loggers to tally the elephants’ daily movement.
The anklets were originally part of larger study measuring outdoor walking distances of 56 elephants in 30 different zoos. Conducted in 2012, and published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the study found that, nationally, zoo elephants walked 3.2 miles per day on average, comparable to the daily distances covered by wild elephants. The Oregon Zoo’s Sung-Surin was one of the study’s participants, walking an average of 4.7 miles per day.
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“At the time of that original study, the Oregon Zoo was still building Elephant Lands,” Glaeser said. “So we wanted to continue the research and find out how things might have changed with the new habitat.”
Elephant Lands — made possible by a 2008 zoo bond measure promoting animal welfare and sustainability — is four times larger than the former elephant area. The new habitat opened in 2015, and extends around most of the zoo’s eastern border, accounting for nearly one-tenth of its total 64-acre footprint.
Designed to promote activity and choice, the space provides a variety of feeding methods to mimic the grazing habits of wild elephants: timed feeders, overhead feeders that prompt the elephants to stretch and sometimes climb on logs, and puzzles that require manipulation to acquire food. These snacking opportunities are spread throughout three outdoor habitats, so the elephants forage and explore for up to 16 hours a day.
The results of the latest walking study, while not surprising, were gratifying, Glaeser said. GPS mapping from the new habitat showed the elephants are walking farther than before, moving throughout the entire habitat and all around its 1.3-mile perimeter. Sung-Surin doubled her average from the previous study and now walks an average of 9.6 miles a day.
“They’re actually walking even more than that,” Glaeser said. “At Elephant Lands, they can choose to go indoors if they want, and the GPS units can only reliably measure the elephants’ movement when they’re outdoors.”
Glaeser’s work at the Oregon Zoo is part of a larger effort aimed at determining objective indicators of well-being for elephants both in zoos and in their native range countries.