Asian elephants at Sydney's Taronga Zoo earmarked for new home in Dubbo

THE next addition to the herd of male elephants at Taronga Western Plains Zoo (TWPZ) will have new safety rules in place to protect their keepers.

The two Asian male calves will be managed in restricted contact following the near-fatal crushing of a Taronga Zoo keeper last year in Sydney.

The incident has now prevented the Sydney zoo from fulfilling one of the conditions of importing endangered Asian elephants from Thailand - to walk them.

A spokeswoman from TWPZ said it will also follow suit, with the keepers "moving towards those recommendations". The zoo aim to be operational with the Asian calves by 2015.

"We're moving towards these recommendations and this will ensure the safety of the animals and keepers," she said.

She said Dubbo's own resident Asian elephants, Gigi and Burma, were already managed in restricted contact, as was Cuddles (the zoo's only African elephant).

Taronga Zoo acting general manager of life sciences Rebecca Spindler said restricted contact, now becoming standard practice in the US where most zoos called it "protected contact", meant keepers stayed out of the elephant enclosures unless there was a specific need. In those cases, physical space between animal and human was maintained, or the elephants were restrained either by drugs or tethering to a bollard.

Taronga Zoo has confirmed it would send all its male Asian elephants to Dubbo soon, splitting the family and social group of eight.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, some experts said moving part of the group was cruel.

"To arbitrarily chop a group in two and send some of them off to another place is a very disturbing and frankly cruel thing to do," former zoo director, David Hancocks said.

But the TWPZ spokeswoman said it was natural for young male elephants in the wild to be "pushed" out of the herd group.

Pathi Harn, a young male elephant, pinned senior keeper Lucy Melo to a pole during a training session last October and nearly killed her.

She returned to work last week and an internal investigation cleared the zoo of any wrong-doing, blaming high levels of testosterone in the elephant.

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