Zoos Are Tracking Elephant Fitness, and It's Improving the Animals' Health

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Even elephants are getting on the quantified-self movement. The health of some zoo elephants is now being monitored through fitness trackers, according to NPR. It’s called the Elephant Welfare Initiative, a national endeavor to study how elephants in captivity are faring and what steps can be taken to improve their health and happiness.

As part of the program, caretakers keep detailed logs about their elephants’ activity and behaviors. (The animals aren't wearing any devices a la Fitbit.) Fitness tracking software, developed by an organization called AWARE (Animal Welfare Assessment, Research and Education), then provides suggestions about how to change up the animals’ routines to benefit their well being.

AWARE found several important factors for elephant health while tracking hundreds of elephants for several studies published in July 2016. For instance, having more space doesn’t necessarily make elephants healthier, but elephants that have lots of social time exhibit fewer nervous tics, and reproductive health in female elephants can improve by giving them puzzle challenges. The studies found that soft soil or sand was better for the elephants' joints. Not to mention, the tracking of the animals’ movements can reduce their obesity rates. Two elephants at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo have each lost about 2000 pounds while taking part in the program, which is currently being implemented in 40-some zoos around the country.

Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals, and some critics argue that zoos will never be able to provide the kind of environment they need to really thrive. Zoos don’t have the space to support the large, complex social networks elephants have in the wild, and elephant families are often separated as young elephants born in captivity are sent to other institutions. Many zoos have closed their elephant programs, though there are still 78 zoos in North America that keep the pachyderms. However, some zoos that have pledged to end their elephant programs are continuing to keep their current elephants until they pass away, and others are planning to keep hosting elephants for the foreseeable future, so a little bit of tracking can help those institutions keep their elephants as happy as possible while in captivity.

[h/t NPR]