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RFID Goes on Safari

The Dallas Zoo tracks elephants in real time to study their behavior and determine if they're getting enough exercise.
By Amy Lipton
Jun 04, 2012—A few years ago, the 110-acre Dallas Zoo, in Texas, was in danger of losing Jenny, its 10,000-pound, 36-year-old elephant. "We were down to one elephant, we didn't have any self-sustaining groups, and the animal-rights people were knocking on our door to send her out to the wild," says Lynn Kramer, the zoo's deputy director for animal conservation and science. "That really galvanized the entire community—even the mayor—to help us fast-track the resources to develop this game-changing exhibit."

Kramer is referring to Giants of the Savanna, an 11-acre habitat, open since May 2010, that now serves as home to five African elephants—all acquired from circuses, animal parks and private owners—as well as giraffes, zebras and other species. The relatively spacious environment was designed with input from Charles Foley, of the Tarangire Elephant Project, which studies the behavior of elephants in the wild in Tanzania. Still, he says, zoo officials "wanted to counteract negative criticism about animal welfare in zoos, by looking for indications of wellness and scientifically proving the elephants were getting good care. We know, for instance, that elephants may walk 50 miles a day in the wild, but they may only walk a few miles a day in most exhibits."

The 11-acre habitat at Giants of the Savanna serves as home to five African elephants—all acquired from circuses, animal parks and private owners.

In July 2011, the Dallas Zoo introduced the pilot version of an RFID-based system dubbed TangaTracker ("tanga" means "wander" in Swahili), to monitor the elephants' behavior and exercise patterns in real time, in the southern portion of the Giants of the Savanna exhibit. "We've proven the elephants are walking more here," Kramer states. "They've lost weight, they're thinner, their feet are in better shape, and they're not displaying the stereotypical behavior of head-bobbing that elephants do in older exhibits."

The pilot project lasted nine months, during which performance was assessed and improvements were made to enhance coverage, locational accuracy and the simultaneous tracking of multiple elephants. In April 2012, the zoo expanded the tracking system to the exhibit's northern portion.

Tracking Elephants
Zoo officials began considering a tracking application in 2010, when the $30 million Giants of the Savanna habitat was near completion, Kramer says. In addition to monitoring the elephants in real time, they wanted to use the collected data for conservation and research purposes, as well as to enhance the visitor experience.

"Originally, I didn't know much about RFID—I thought we would end up with GPS," Kramer says. "Disney [Animal Kingdom] had experience with GPS [on elephants], and so had the San Diego Zoo, but [those applications required] big bulky collars, and counterweights around the elephants' necks to keep the units pointed at the satellites. I wasn't thrilled about that."
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