The elephant exhibit for our female herd is part of the 'Rainforest Trail' precinct of Taronga Zoo. Visitor's are led on a journey through this precinct along an immersive trail which starts at the elephant barn and leads to other exhibits inhabited by species found throughout South-East Asia. 'Rainforest Trail' is designed to teach visitor's about the different habitats of the rainforest - from the tree-top canopy down the shaded forest floor - and why it is so important to protect these habitats.
Our breeding facility which houses our young male elephant has been constructed on the former site of the heritage listed elephant temple. This site now combines modern design with the charm of the original temple. Today, rather than housing elephants the heritage listed temple is open to the public providing visitors a glimpse into the past with information on the long history of elephants at Taronga Zoo.
Both elephant exhibits at Taronga Zoo contain large barns equipped with radiant heaters and hot & cold water facilities. The elephants have access to these barns and the surrounding exhibits throughout the night. The exhibits features deep and shallow swimming pools, mud wallows, sleeping mounds, shaded areas, scratching posts and logs and many enrichment items that keep the elephants active and stimulated. Regular walks around the Zoo grounds and daily play sessions with our Keepers are also designed for exercise and physical activity.
Bath-time happens every day and it is an important time for elephants and keepers. This activity is done in the elephant barn but on hot summer days can occur in the lower paddock under the waterfall.
While the elephants are thoroughly cleaned the main focus of these baths is to maintain and strengthen the very close bonds and trust between an elephant and keeper. Once clean the bath also gives us a chance to check the elephants thoroughly, incorporating a feet & teeth check. Our elephants have been around people from the day they were born and they thrive on attention and interaction. This bath-time activity allows us to provide plenty of that. During this time we provide useful and detailed information on elephants and their conservation issues to the many visitors who come to watch.
The play sessions we do with our elephants are very important to their physical and mental health. While providing important opportunities for elephants and keepers to work together and strengthen their relationships, the games and activities we do all help with balance, co-ordination, dexterity and problem-solving skills. Things like pushing tyres, pulling logs, catching, throwing and kicking balls are all fun and are done purely for the elephants' entertainment and enjoyment.
These sessions allow both our elephants and keepers to provide information to zoo visitors on the history of elephants and humans. This presentation details to visitors what elephants have been used for over the centuries, what they are used for today as well as the dangers and threats to the species' future survival.
As social animals the best enrichment for elephants is contact with other elephants. Having a breeding male and a herd of female elephants with young calves is the nucleus of a small natural herd.
The exhibits in which our elephants live include deep and shallow pools, mud wallows and dirt mounds. These features allow the elephants to swim, roll around and wrestle together. These natural behaviours and activities strengthen the very close family bonds our elephants have formed and while it is all good fun, this also ensures they get plenty of activity and exercise.
As well as these exhibit features we provide many enrichment toys for our elephants to play and have fun with. Things such as tyres, boomer balls, drilled bamboo pieces, plastic barrels, bungee apparatus can all be used at different times to exercise and enrich our elephants.
Morning walks are a great way for the elephants to explore the rest of the Zoo and are done early in the morning before the hustle and bustle of visiting hours.
These walks are good exercise for our elephants and are only possible due to the very close relationship and levels of trust our elephants have with their keepers.
Sometimes these walks involve a visit to our male elephant breeding facility where Gung can interact and practice his breeding skills.
At other times, the elephants walk throughout their exhibit, which include multiple paddocks and traversing the hillside slopes.
Trimming and filing of the elephants' toenails and pads is done on a regular basis. Similar to horses, elephants' feet grow continuously. In captivity we file their nails to ensure that the edges are raised and weight is not exerted on them while the elephants are walking or playing. By doing this we minimise cracks in the nails.
This husbandry activity is a co-operative activity and further strengthens the bonds and trust in the elephant and keeper relationship.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals and they learn new things very quickly. This combined with their strength and agility has meant that in the past they have been trained for human benefit and entertainment. But here at Taronga Zoo we train the elephants for their own physical and mental well-being. By training certain behaviours and activities, the elephants actually help us look after them as best we can. There are a variety of methods and tools used to manage and train elephants. At Taronga Zoo there are four very important training tools that we use:
A target pole is used primarily, but not exclusively, when managing an elephant behind a barrier. It consists of a small water buoy attached to a wood stick. The target pole is used as a point of reference for the elephant. The elephant is expected to move towards the water buoy (the “target”) and touch it with the appropriate part of their body. For example, to train an elephant to raise its foot, the target is positioned above the elephant’s foot. When the elephant raises its foot to touch the target pole, it is given a treat. Once the behaviour is fully trained, the target is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue. Instead just the verbal command “foot” is given and the elephant understands to raise its foot.
An elephant guide is a tool that is used to teach, guide and direct an elephant. In the past, some people have called this an ankus or a bullhook. These names are outdated and do not provide an adequate explanation for the proper use of the tool. Ankus is a term used to describe the elephant handling tool used in many Asian countries, which do not resemble our guides. The term bullhook was coined over 100 years ago by circus men who called all elephants, regardless of sex, bulls.
Elephant management has evolved since then, and its tools and their uses have evolved as well. The elephant guide consists of a hook mounted on one end of a plastic or wooden shaft. The hook is preferably made of stainless steel, as it will not rust and is easy to keep clean. The ends on the hook are tapered to a point so that the elephant can feel the pressure of the guide through their thick skin, but blunt enough so that the hook does not penetrate the skin. The design of the guide allows the elephant to be directed with either a pushing or pulling motion. The elephant guide adds a physical and visual cue to a verbal command. To train an elephant to raise its foot using an elephant guide, the keeper places the guide behind the foot. The keeper then touches the back of the foot with the guide and using only slight pressure, uses the guide to prompt the elephant to lift its foot. When the foot reaches the desired level, the elephant is praised and given a treat. Once the behaviour is fully trained, the guide is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue, as the elephant responds to the verbal command alone.
Each keeper has a pouch filled with elephant treats that they carry around their waist at all times. The treats are simply bite size pieces of fruits and veggies that the elephants enjoy. The treats are given to the elephants as positive reinforcement. When the elephant responds correctly to a command given by the keeper, they are rewarded with a treat. They are also rewarded with treats purely for their good behaviour and attitude. This is a very powerful tool that is used in elephant training, and it provides the opportunity for all interactions with the keeper and elephant to be positive. The elephants are happy to co-operate with the keepers, as they are getting something they desire in the process.
By far the most powerful tool that keepers can have when training elephants is their positive relationship with the elephant. Having a genuine, loving relationship with the elephants is crucial to working with them successfully. Elephants are very social and affectionate, and respond well when the training is positive and fun for both the keepers and elephants. The elephants also thrive on the verbal praise and tactile affection given by the keepers. A kind word, and gentle stroking and patting of the elephant by the keeper go a long way towards building a trusting and caring relationship. Our goal is to have the elephants participate in training because they want to. A positive relationship is the key to making this happen.