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An Example of Activity-Based Zoo Exhibit Design: A Review of the Wild Asia’s Elephant Exhibit at Taronga Zoo

Short Description of the Exhibit

Asian elephant (photo: Christian)In January, ZooLex (ZooLex Zoo Design Organization, www.zoolex.org) presented the Wild Asia’s Elephant Exhibit at Taronga Zoo, Sydney, Australia. It is worth mentioning that this one is the tenth elephant exhibit readable on the website. Wild Asia is a themed multispecies exhibit with Asian rainforest animal species which covers a bit more than one hectare and was opened for the public in 2005. The whole exhibit space is divided into two thematic zones: the urban riverside village on one hand and animal enclosures with immersion trails on the other, so the visitors can explore the area both from the aspects of naturalistic environments and human cultural settings. The area simulates an Asiatic rainforest background, featuring both plants and animals typical of South East Asia.

Visitors can find several mammal species here, like Malayan tapirs (Tapirus indicus), Asian small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea), fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus), binturongs (Arctictis binturong), chitals (Axis axis), silvery gibbons (Hylobates moloch), Francois langurs (Trachypithecus francoisi) and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus).

Elephant paddock (photo credit: Monika Fiby)The largest part of the exhibit was built for the elephants: the main enclosure which is used by the females covering an area of 4600 m², and an outdoor facility for the bull is 2000 m² big with an additional exercise yard (GRAAFF 2015). The male is presently kept in a renovated former elephant exhibit which is located in another part of the zoo (COE 2015, pers. comm.)

Although this is not the biggest elephant enclosure in comparison with some European and North American ones, it has a well-designed landscape with many factors that offer a proper behavioural enrichment program for the animals.

You can find presentations on other Wild Asia exhibits in the ZooLex Gallery as well, such as the Wild Asia’s Tapir and Wild Asia’s Fishing Cat Exhibits.

Preliminary Design of the Exhibit

Elephant lookout (photo credit: Monika Fiby)In the following I will share some of Mr. Jon Coe’s thoughts about this exhibit based on our recent discussion. Mr. Coe was working as a zoo design specialist consultant for Hassell Architect in 1999 and led the preliminary design of the Wild Asia zone at Taronga Zoo. This included the elephant and the abovementioned smaller exhibits. After they completed their detailed design documents, the zoo hired another firm to complete construction documents and construction observation services, but their plans were substantially followed. Mr. Stuart Green had done the original sketch plan for the project before Mr. Coe became involved and also was on the team which finalized the plans and oversaw construction.

Some of the Health Problems of Elephants in Captivity

Foot problems, such as nail splitting and arthritis, are some of the most common health problems seen in Asian elephants in captivity in the western world and prevention of these problems is of great importance for maintaining elephant welfare (FOWLER 2001, HASPESLAGH et al. 2013). Mr. Coe believes complications from foot infections are a major cause of disease and death in captive elephants in North America. Since foot infections were rare in free-ranging wild elephants, minor foot infections in zoo elephants may not heal properly because of poor blood circulation in captive elephants caused by lack of physical exercise (COE 2015, pers. comm.)

Another important problem is stereotypic behaviour, which are traditionally described as “repetitive, non-variable and apparently functionless behavioural patterns” (ÖDBERG 1978). In Asian elephants, several factors have been shown to increase the occurrence of stereotypic behaviour, such as a low environmental temperature, predictable routines, boredom and inadequate (mainly small) group size (REES 2004, 2009a, 2009b) and lack of space (STROUD 2007). „To summarise, displaying repetitive behaviour results in increased pressure and repetitive strain on the elephant’s feet. Therefore, a positive relationship between the occurrence of stereotypic behaviour and foot problems in elephants is not unlikely.” (HASPESLAGH  et al. 2013). Furthermore, „a significant positive effect of the presence of stereotypic behaviour on the occurrence of foot problems was found.” (HASPESLAGH  et al. 2013). Mr. Coe has pointed out an important aspect as well: „Standing in one place (when chained or kept in small pens) is the problem. Shifting weight from foot to foot is the animal's response to improve blood circulation to the feet and lower legs; muscular activity is the only way blood in the veins of the feet is returned to the heart. This requires nearly constant and considerable movement to provide the muscular action needed. This is why wild elephants rarely seem to stand still and why captive elephants rock back and forth.” (COE 2015, pers. comm.)

River and stilt house (photo credit: Jon Coe)Connection between Exhibit Design and Animal Welfare

Behavioural enrichment is an effective method to reduce stereotypic behaviour. FORTHMAN-QUICK (1984) reasoned that landscaped immersion exhibits are inherently enriching for the animals, but such exhibits still need additional enrichment methods (COE 2003), therefore elephants at Taronga Zoo have a scheduled and supervised enrichment program. This includes an excellent assortment of more traditional elephant enrichment features such as suspended hay nets, logs to push and hanging smaller logs to walk through and rub against and especially successful, a steep pile of soil for the elephants to lie and sleep against. This soil is frequently repiled by zoo staff to maintain looseness and steep slopes (COE 2015, pers. comm.)

Sketch of aquatic aerobic exercise (photo credit: CLRdesign)We also have to mention an important trend in zoo exhibitry. „The activity-based design emphasizes behavioural management as advocated by Heini Hediger in the 1950’s. This concept was updated in the 1980’s to integrate the fields of behavioural enrichment, animal training, husbandry and design. Improved animal activity and fitness levels result in more active and interesting animal displays. Activity-based design begins with the premise that the animals’ long term well-being is paramount and that environments, programs and procedures which advance this goal are frequently of great interest to the visiting public. Healthy animals with stimulating behavioural choices tend to be active animals. Therefore, opportunity-rich animal environment, enlightened animal care and caretaker devotion should all be made visible to the public within a setting which demonstrates the animals’ innate competence.” (COE 1997). The term and concepts of „activity-based design” were developed by Mr. Jon Charles Coe and Mr. Gary Lee at CLRdesign.

Pool and waterfall in the lower part of the exhibit and broad boulders forming „elephant steps” in the background (photo credit: Monika Fiby)As many of the captive animals have very limited opportunity for strenuous physical activity compared to their wild counterparts, physical fitness also plays an important role in animal management (COE & DYKSTRA 2012). Since the lack of physical exercises results in many health problems in captive elephants, the Taronga Zoo elephant facility was designed around the idea of encouraging enjoyable and strenuous physical exercise for the animals. Since Taronga is an urban zoo with limited available space, Mr. Coe recommended the alternative of aquatic aerobic exercise using a narrow linear exercise pool. In-pool exercise is effective with race horses and popular with older people as well, because it develops both cardiovascular and muscular strength with low impact on feet and legs. This increases cardiovascular fitness with non-weight bearing exercise and it is well used by the elephants.

Using „elephant steps” (photo credit: Jon Coe)These „bathing activities” also stimulate natural behaviours and strengthen family bonds, and, of course elephants love water play when introduced as youngsters. In the Sydney subtropical climate elephants can use the pool all year around. Therefore a naturalistic linear pool was designed resembling a river bend approximately 3m wide, 3m deep (but with shallow areas as well) and 60m long with access at both ends and in the middle. This design also fit well with the Thai village theme, showing the village built along a ‘river bend’ (COE 2015, pers. comm.)

The outdoor enclosure also had a lower area which was connected to the upper area with broad boulders forming elephant steps, planning that the elephants would be lead on circuits including swimming and hill climbing as a diverse exercise program. The lower part of the exhibit also has a pool and a waterfall for the animals.

Mud wallow (photo credit: Jon Coe)While zoo staff never undertook this active exercise policy, the present young elephants get a lot of exercise playing in the pool after a good mud wrestle in the mud wallow. If the elephants become inactive as they get older, actively managed protected contact exercise sessions could be added to compensate for the exhibits relatively small size (COE 2015, pers. comm.).


A useful video shows „Elephant activities” at Taronga Zoo recorded by Mr. Jon Charles Coe in 2008:

For further photographs and detailed information about this exhibit (size, cost, award-winning, features dedicated to animals, keepers and visitors, management, research and conservation) please visit ZooLex here:

Wild Asia's Elephant Exhibit at Taronga Zoo on ZooLex


I would like to thank very much all the people who made it possible to write and helped to improve this article by providing information and photographs as well: Mrs. Monika Fiby, Mr. Nick de Graaff, and a special thanks to Mr. Jon Charles Coe for his beneficial thoughts about this exhibit.


COE, J. C. 1997. Entertaining Zoo Visitors and Zoo Animals: An Integrated Approach. In 1997 AZA Convention Proceedings, American Zoo and Aquarium Association, Bethesda, MD, pp. 156-162.

COE, J. C. 2003. Steering the ark toward Eden: Design for animal well-being. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 223: 977-80.

COE, J. C. & DYKSTRA, G. 2012. New and Sustainable Directions in Zoo Exhibit Design. In: KLEINMAN, D. G., THOMPSON, K. V. & BAER, C. K. 2012 (eds): Wild Mammals in Captivity: Principles and Techniques for Zoo Management, Second Edition, University of Chicago Press.

FORTHMAN-QUICK, D. L. 1984. An integrative approach to environmental engineering in zoos. Zoo Biology 3: 65-78.

FOWLER, M. E. 2001. An overview of foot conditions in Asian and African elephants. In: Csuti, B., SARGENT, E. L. & BECHERT, U. S. (eds): The Elephant’s Foot: Prevention and Care of Foot Conditions in Captive Asian and African Elephants pp 3-7. Iowa State University Press: Ames, USA

GRAAFF, d. N. 2015. Wild Asia’s Elephants. Taronga Conservation Society Australia


HASPESLAGH, M., STEVENS, J. M. G., GROOT, E. D., DEWULF, J., KALMAR, I. D. & MOONS, C. P. H. 2013. A survey of foot problems, stereotypic behaviour and floor type in Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in European zoos. Animal Welfare 2013, 22: 437-443.

ÖDBERG, F. O. 1978. Abnormal behaviours (stereotypies). Proceedings of the First World Congress on Ethology Applied to Zootechnics pp 475-480. 23-27 October 1978, Madrid, Spain

REES, P. A. 2004. Low environmental temperature causes an increase in stereotypic behaviour in captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Journal of Thermal Biology 29: 37-43.

REES, P. A. 2009a. The sizes of elephant groups in zoos: implications for elephant welfare. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 12: 44-60.

REES, P. A. 2009b. Activity budgets and the relationship between feeding and stereotypic behaviours in Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) in a Zoo. Zoo Biology 28: 79-97.

STROUD, P. 2007. Defining issues of space in zoos. Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research 2: 219-222.


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