Taronga Western Plains Zoo Elephant Program - insights from the elephant keepers

Elephant Profiles

Burma

Burma is a female Asian Elephant and has been a resident at Taronga Western Plains Zoo since she moved from Taronga in mid-2005.

Gigi

Gigi is a female Asian Elephant who arrived at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in January 2008 after retiring from the Stardust Circus.

Cuddles

Cuddles is a female African Elephant who arrived at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in 1977 from the United Kingdom.

About their home

Taronga Western Plains Zoo is home to two Asian Elephants and one African Elephant. Taronga Western Plains Zoo is the only Zoo in Australia to care for an African Elephant and is a great place to compare the two species.

Our Elephant exhibits stretch across three large paddocks which have swimming pools, mud wallows, shade shelters and dirt mounds for the Elephants to use at their leisure.

The Elephant night barn is equipped with heating for the winter months and also has large sand yards, which is where some of the Elephants choose to sleep, especially in the warmer months.

Bathing

The Elephants regularly have a hose down session before going out into the exhibit. This is like giving the Elephants an exfoliating scrub and removes any dead skin cells from their body. Usually, following a hose down, the Elephants love to cover themselves with dirt or mud, which is what they would do in the wild. The Elephants also have swimming pools in their exhibit which they often use to cool off in, especially in summer.

Enrichment

Elephants are very intelligent animals and enjoy learning and playing with each other as well as new challenges. All four Elephants receive a variety of enrichment toys including tyres, plastic barrels and ropes as well as large tree branches and logs. These items help to keep them stimulated both physically and mentally.

Our exhibits have been designed to encourage the Elephants’ natural behaviours, with features such as swimming pools, mud wallows, and dirt mounds both on exhibit and in their night yards. These features provide the Elephants with the opportunity to swim, roll around and cover themselves in dirt and mud.

To assist in encouraging natural behaviours such as foraging, keepers will place food in different parts of the exhibit so that the Elephants have to search to find their meal, as they would in the wild.

One of our Asian Elephants and the African Elephant also have special painting sessions as an enrichment activity because they enjoy learning new behaviours and interacting with Zoo Keepers.

Exercise

Zoo Keepers regularly hide the Elephants' food in and amongst objects in the exhibit so that they have to forage for their food like they would in the wild. This is great exercise as they walk from place to place in their large paddocks. Like humans as they get older, Elephants are susceptible to aged-related diseases, so our Elephants have a regular exercise as part of their special aged-care program to help them keep fit in their old age. 

While the keepers do not work in the yards with the Elephants, there’s lots of physical contact and a special training program has helped the Elephants work with the keepers to manage their health. The Elephants have even learned to present their feet for checks and pedicures.

The Elephants enjoy the run of three large paddocks during the day.

Foot Care

All the Elephants have a daily foot care routine which involves them presenting their feet so that the pads can be checked and cleaned. Keepers also regularly file their toenails, as Elephants are similar to horses in that their nails are continuously growing.

Keepers file the nails to ensure that the edges are raised and weight is not exerted on them while the Elephants walk around, which helps minimise cracking in their nails. This routine assists keepers to build a strong bond and relationship with the Elephants.

Caring for ageing elephants

All of the three Elephants at Taronga Western Plains Zoo are considered to be in their twilight years. To ensure all three females maintain good health and a high quality of life as they grow older, keepers and veterinarians at the Zoo have put in place a special care program to assist with age related matters.

The Elephants have also learned to be weighed, present their feet, present their ears to allow blood samples to be taken and to open their mouths for regular health and dental checks. These basic behaviours allow keepers to detect the slightest of changes in their weight, teeth, skin or toe nails, so these early indicators of illness can be acted on very quickly and effectively. The Elephants also have regular vet checks to ensure they are maintaining good health.

Caring for the world’s largest land mammals can be challenging, especially as they get older when they are prone to degenerative diseases similar to those older humans suffer.

Currently we treat the Elephants at the Zoo for degenerative joint diseases using nutritional supplements such as Glucosamine every day. These diseases are common with older animals and the Elephants have responded well to this treatment.