Rescue mission accomplished: Dallas Zoo, two other zoos welcome African elephants to safe homes

Our new bull elephant grabs a bite in the new elephant barn Friday, March 11.

Our new bull elephant grabs a bite in the new elephant barn Friday, March 11.

Together with our two zoo partners on Friday, we’ve successfully completed a rescue mission to relocate 17 elephants from drought-stricken Swaziland, Africa, to new homes in the U.S. The five elephants that will call our Zoo home – four females and one male – arrived today off of a special charter flight, then were whisked to the Zoo under armed escort by the Fort Worth SWAT team and Dallas Police officers.

All 17 elephants came through their travels well, eating, drinking and sleeping aboard the charter flight, which arrived just after midnight at Fort Worth’s Alliance Airport. The five new Dallas Zoo residents disembarked for the final leg of their journey beginning just after 8 a.m., and are now becoming acclimated to their new, state-of-the-art elephant barn.

The Dallas Zoo is already home to a geriatric female herd of four, fondly known as the “Golden Girls.” The new elephants do not yet have names. After a 30-day quarantine period, they will begin introductions to the Golden Girls. Guests won’t be able to see the new additions until keepers are sure they have settled in well.

We, along with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo and conservation officials in Swaziland stepped up to offer these elephants a new home.

The conservation partners transported the elephants after receiving an importation permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) on Jan. 20, after a scientifically rigorous analysis determined that the import met regulatory requirements under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

We have held a legal permit to relocate the elephants since Jan. 20. They won a last-minute challenge by animal activists in federal court, where a judge upheld the validity of the permit and allowed the rescue to proceed. And today (Friday, March 11), the activist group which tried to delay the relocation filed a motion to withdraw its request for a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. District Court ordered that the motion is deemed withdrawn, and that the previously scheduled briefing schedule be cancelled.

The elephants came from two privately managed government parks in Swaziland, where they had been removed due to overpopulation and slated to be culled (killed). The Swaziland government declared a national state of emergency in February due to historic drought conditions. Tens of thousands of animals are dying from drought and lack of food, and the United Nations is providing assistance to 200,000 people.

“We’ve worked with Swaziland wildlife authorities for several years on this assistance project, but it escalated to a rescue mission last fall due to this state-of-emergency drought,” said Gregg Hudson, Dallas Zoo president and CEO. “Tens of thousands of animals have died, as well as people, too.”

“In addition, there are reports coming out of Africa that the drought will kill more rhinos than poachers will this year,” Hudson added. “We had to act quickly to save as many animals as possible. The well-being of these elephants is more important to us than anything.”

We’ve paid to bring in truckloads of hay from South Africa to feed elephants and other animals in the parks; however, many animals – including 38,000 head of livestock – died in the severe conditions. The urgency of the situation increased further in December when we were notified by wildlife managers in Swaziland of the death of one of those elephants that was awaiting relocation to the U.S. The death resulted from an acute gastrointestinal medical condition, which was impossible to treat in the field. We recognized it was our duty to act promptly on behalf of the remaining 17 elephants, by relocating them quickly so they could receive the veterinary care we can provide.

“There are those who would rather see elephants die than live in accredited zoos. We strongly disagree with that position,” Hudson added. “As animal caretakers and conservationists, we care about populations as a whole just as much as an individual animal. We can provide these elephants a safe future while making an enormous impact on rhino conservation in Africa, and inspiring future generations to take actions to prevent the extinction of elephants in our lifetime.”

The transfer also creates critical room for rhinos in Big Game Parks, which plans to expand its conservation efforts for these critically endangered animals. All three zoos are providing ongoing support for Swaziland’s rhino conservation program, which is expected to significantly contribute to the survival of rhinos in Africa.

“Today is a day to be grateful, and hopeful,” Hudson added. “These elephants will receive advanced veterinary care, and plenty of food and water in a spacious, stimulating, modern habitat that advances elephant families. Endangered rhinos in Africa suffering from the drought already have been moved into the bomas where these elephants had been living and will receive desperately needed support. So it’s a good day.”

This is the second time that elephants have successfully transitioned from Swaziland parks to the U.S. In 2003, 11 elephants arrived from Swaziland and joined African elephants already at two U.S. AZA-accredited zoos as part of an earlier effort to manage the elephant population. Today those elephants are thriving. Each female has successfully delivered at least one calf, and all but one bull has sired, resulting in 14 births.

For more background on this conservation effort, please visit: www.RoomForRhinos.org.

Categories: Africa, Elephant | 2 Comments

Elephants on their way to safe haven in U.S.

Two of the 17 elephants now en route to safe haven in the U.S. from drought-stricken Swaziland.

Two of the 17 elephants now en route to safe haven in the U.S. from drought-stricken Swaziland.

Seventeen African elephants are en route from drought-stricken Swaziland to the U.S.  as part of an ongoing rescue mission to provide a safe haven at our Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo.

This is an extremely complex logistical process which is being undertaken with the greatest of care and attention to detail. No aspect of this process has been rushed, and we are outraged at outlandish claims by extremists that these elephants were moved suddenly in order to circumvent an ongoing lawsuit.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There was no subterfuge to this process. It has been carefully planned for months since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the permit to move these animals. The intricacy of such a move has required coordination with multiple governmental agencies, who were kept apprised of plans along the way.

To be clear, nothing in the filing of a preliminary injunction by an activist group prohibited the relocation of these animals from progressing. A federal court conducted a hearing Tuesday and weighed arguments from both sides. The court then ruled in our favor, allowing us to proceed with bringing the elephants to their new homes. The activists had their day in court, and lost.

“We’ve worked with Swaziland wildlife authorities for several years on this assistance project,​ but it escalated in seriousness due to the devastating drought,” said Gregg Hudson, Dallas Zoo president and CEO. “This became an emergency rescue and we had to move quickly. Activists tried to delay the transport of these elephants, and we were not going to stand by and let that happen. The well-being of these elephants is more important to us than anything.”

These activists have tried to mislead the public and media with false information and attacked our zoos and supporters. The fact is they would rather see these elephants dead than moved to safe homes in the U.S. We strongly disagree with that position, and did everything possible to save these animals. We also support ongoing conservation efforts in Swaziland to bolster the population of critically endangered rhinos.

For the continued safety and security of the animals and the team of wildlife experts who are caring for them during this process, details about the relocation won’t be made public until the transfer is complete and they are secure in their new homes.

Our first and foremost concern has always been the well-being of these elephants. Delays of any sort do not serve them, something we’ve seen firsthand as we worked feverishly on the logistics of this transfer. For example, unfortunately, one of the elephants was lost in December, resulting in only 17 animals being moved. The death resulted from an acute gastrointestinal medical condition, which was impossible to treat. The zoos recognized it was their duty to act promptly on behalf of the remaining 17 elephants, by relocating them quickly so they could receive the veterinary care the zoos can provide.

This great urgency stems from the deteriorating situation in Swaziland. The country is in a state of disaster, with United Nations assistance being provided to 200,000 people. And tens of thousands of animals are dying from drought and lack of food.

We stand proud of our actions to save these elephants from certain death and provide them a healthy future. We are resolute in our commitment to Swaziland’s conservation efforts, and are continuing to contribute funds for food being trucked in for the animals living in the national parks that desperately need it. We have a long-term commitment to the conservation of elephants and critically endangered rhinos in Africa that are facing extreme threats to their survival from poaching, drought, loss of habitat and human conflict.

For truthful information about this relocation project and the drought conditions in Swaziland, please visit: www.RoomForRhinos.org

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant | 9 Comments

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves permit for zoos to offer homes to elephants from drought-stricken Swaziland

Dallas Zoo's one-of-a-kind Giants of the Savanna habitat, where elephants mingle alongside giraffes, zebras, and other savanna species.

Dallas Zoo’s one-of-a-kind Giants of the Savanna habitat, where elephants mingle alongside giraffes, zebras, and other savanna species.

We are incredibly proud to announce that after a thorough scientific review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has approved our permit, along with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Sedgewick County Zoo, to offer safe, expansive homes to elephants from drought-ravaged Swaziland, Africa.

We are working quickly to bring the elephants out of Swaziland, where historic drought conditions continue to threaten wildlife and their welfare.

Working collaboratively, the three accredited zoos will provide homes for the elephants that were slated to be culled as part of a conservation plan to prevent further degradation of the land and to make room for critically endangered rhinos in Swaziland’s Big Game Parks. We are also contributing to Swaziland’s rhino conservation strategies, including helping pay to import food for rhinos that are under severe threat by the drought.

Since July, when the elephants were removed from the parks, they have lived in temporary holding areas called bomas. As drought conditions throughout the region worsened, we proactively supported efforts to import food from other regions to feed the elephants, as well as rhinos that are living in the parks and where adequate food resources are not available. “We are making a lifetime commitment to these elephants and their offspring and are providing a safe home for them,” said Dennis Pate, president/CEO of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.

Gregg Hudson, president/CEO of Dallas Zoo, praised the generous support our local communities have shown for providing a home for the Swaziland elephants. “Our zoos are committed to the safe future of these elephants,” he said. Each social group of elephants will remain together and be cared for in the zoos’ spacious new facilities, which provide room to roam, play and forage in social herd settings.

We are pledging ongoing support for Swaziland’s rhino conservation program, which is expected to significantly contribute to the survival of rhinos in Africa. “We want to do all we can for both species – elephants and rhinos – that are under severe threat due to poaching, human-animal conflict and habitat loss,” said Mark Reed, executive director of Sedgwick County Zoo. “Our goal is to get these elephants to their new homes as quickly as possible.”

For additional updates on the project, visit RoomForRhinos.org.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant | Leave a comment

Never before used “Fitbits” track elephants’ movements

Nancy Scott, Dallas Zoo’s coordinator of elephant behavior science.

Nancy Scott, Dallas Zoo’s coordinator of elephant behavior science.

Nancy Scott, Dallas Zoo’s coordinator of elephant behavior science, guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

If you’ve been to the Zoo in the past few years, you may have noticed that the elephants wear a soft, canvas “bracelet” around one of their front feet. It’s usually caked with mud and blends in well, so you may not have spotted it. But what does it do? What’s it for?

When our Giants of the Savanna exhibit opened in 2010, it looked great. The elephants and other species were more active and using all of the features designed in the space – swimming pools, mud wallows, scratching posts, shade structures, log piles. But we also wondered if there was a way to measure how the elephants were using their new home.

As coordinator of Elephant Behavior Science, I manage all sorts of elephant research projects at the Zoo. As much as I love sitting in the observation towers and watching the elephants, I can’t be out there 24/7. How could I collect round-the-clock location data AND keep track of daily elephant behavior AND watch how the elephants are getting along with the giraffe, birds, and hoofstock in North America’s only mixed-species elephant exhibit AND still have time to eat and sleep?

Gypsy wears her RFID tag while enjoying a shower in the Savanna.

Gypsy wears her RFID bracelet while enjoying a shower in the Savanna.

Well, we decided that a remote, real-time system using active radio frequency identification (RFID) tags would give us the immediate information we need. But no one had ever done this before with elephants. Or with any other animal. Ever. Challenge accepted!

What’s RFID?

Passive RFID (microchips) are used to keep track of your pets and library books. But those receivers need to be really close to the chip to read the signal. Active RFID has been used for inventory tracking to monitor where boxes are in a warehouse, but this is totally different. Boxes don’t move often. Elephants move a lot. We had to do a lot of software development to make the Zoo’s system more user-friendly.

PathTracker image shows the elephants' movements in one hour throughout the Savanna.

PathTracker image shows the elephants’ movements in one hour throughout the Savanna.

Now we can collect location data in real time and see the results as they happen. The computer calculates totals and averages of how far each elephant travels and their average speed, and also produces cool pictures of where they’ve been over time so we know what parts of the habitat each elephant really likes.

For instance, Congo doesn’t mind being by herself and will wander over to the giraffe yard to make sure there’s no leftover ostrich food. Kamba likes to cross the river and eat hay in the area the keepers fondly refer to as “Kamba’s Corner” near the viewing tent.

The data is collected from RFID tags worn by the elephants in those fabric bracelets. The bracelets don’t bother them – it’s like you wearing a wristwatch. The elephants wear these bracelets anytime they go outdoors, rain or shine, day or night.

Kamba and Congo's bracelets have seen many muddy days.

Kamba and Congo’s bracelets have seen many muddy days.

Each tag sends a signal every 6 seconds, telling a computer where the tag is located in the habitat. The computer generates graphs and tables of data for me to look at. The tag is smaller than a cell phone and keeps track of an elephant’s location and speed in the habitat – like a Fitbit for elephants. Batteries inside the tag allow the signal to travel all the way across the exhibit (much farther than the RFID signal in your car’s Toll Tag) to the receivers around the perimeter fencing.

Next time you’re at the Zoo, look up at the roof of the Simmons Safari Base Camp. You’ll see two of the square, black receivers mounted on the thatched roof. Then look across at the observation tower. Do you see the two mounted there? As long as 3 or more receivers detect the tag signal, the computer knows where the elephant is and saves a data point.

Why does this data matter?

The soft canvas bracelet is camouflaged in the red mud coated on Gypsy.

The soft canvas bracelet is camouflaged in the red mud coated on Gypsy.

The Dallas Zoo elephants aren’t under the same stressors as wild, migratory elephants are, since we provide them with water, food and shelter. However, we still want to be sure they’re active and fit. I like to compare it to human behavior in a hotel room or a 2,500-square-foot house. If you’re lazy, you’re just going to sit on the couch and watch TV, no matter how big your space is. But if you have stuff to do, you’ll be active and move around your house or leave your hotel room and explore the city. We’ve provided the elephants with a larger space that they find interesting, so they want to walk a lot.

The RFID data shows the elephant keepers that the mud wallows, browse and hanging hay nets they set up every day motivate the elephants to explore the habitat more. For zoo exhibit designers, the data shows that creating a complex habitat like the Giants of the Savanna is beneficial to elephants.

As a person who studies behavioral ecology and social interactions in animals, the data answers interesting questions for me, like whether the elephants move around differently when they’re with other elephants or with giraffe and other species, who they like to hang out with, and if there are changes with the weather.

We’ve learned that the elephants, on average, walk more than 10 miles a day. On cool days, Congo travels nearly 17 miles a day!

Congo strolls through the Savanna at sunset with Kamba close behind.

Congo strolls through the Savanna at sunset with Kamba close behind.

I refer to her as The Great Explorer –always wandering around and searching the entire habitat. She’s the first one to head over to the North Habitat when the gates are opened on a mixed-species day. Gypsy is pretty confident, too, but Congo really roams! I’d definitely call them our two best walkers. And not surprisingly, each elephant walks more when it’s cool than when it’s hot. On hot days, they spend more time swimming in the pools and mud-bathing. When it’s cool, they spend more time exploring the habitat. Either way, I’m happy to report that they are behaving like elephants and using the habitat to their advantage!

Currently I’m working with a group from the University of Texas at Dallas so that everyone interested in the data can better access it – including you. In the future, you’ll be able to see data for yourself and maybe even put your scientist hat on. Ask your own questions! Who is your favorite elephant? Want to know how far Congo walked in 2015? Let’s find out together.


Categories: Elephant | 5 Comments

The real story about our elephant project


Drought-stricken dam in Big Game Parks remains empty.

As you may know, we’re awaiting approval of a permit to relocate 18 elephants who face certain death in Swaziland. We’re joining two other accredited U.S. zoos to give them the newest, most innovative homes for elephants in human care. Some anti-zoo activists are spreading untruths about this project and attacking us to spark negative comments to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services. They believe these animals are better off dead than living in our remarkable new habitats – and we strongly disagree.

So we’re sharing the facts in this short VIDEO below. We partner with many African conservation groups, helping save species in crisis there. It’s a difficult, complex situation with few easy answers. Between the horrific daily poaching deaths and the devastating Swazi drought, there simply is no safe place for these elephants in Africa. Swazi officials have worked on their thoughtful conservation plan for 50 years, and their decision about these elephants is critical to saving the nearly extinct black rhino. We are proud to offer our help. We know we will give these elephants an excellent quality of life, and we simply cannot stand by while they die.

And yes, we also believe that in the U.S., these remarkable animals will inspire new generations to help endangered wildlife worldwide. We’re committed to large, multi-generational herds that will keep families together. In 2003, activists protested a similar project that brought 11 elephants to the U.S. They lost, after an extensive analysis by government officials and in court, but are again fighting this project, using the same dated arguments. And it’s worth noting that since then, those 11 elephants have produced 14 healthy calves – a success for this species.

PLEASE GIVE US 90 SECONDS to watch this video that outlines our elephant project. Then visit www.roomforrhinos.org/unsafe-africa for more details. We think you’ll be moved by the photos of the hardship there.

We appreciate you taking the time to understand this difficult issue. If you’d like to comment on the permit request, you may do so HERE.


Categories: Africa, Elephant | 20 Comments

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