A mammoth task

AS Colchester Zoo's cheeky youngster Jambo celebrates his second birthday, he's getting boisterous! Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out how to train the world's largest land mammal to do what you want.

By Tracey Sparling

AS Colchester Zoo's cheeky youngster Jambo celebrates his second birthday, he's getting boisterous! Features editor TRACEY SPARLING finds out how to train the world's largest land mammal to do what you want.

JAMBO the young bull elephant is eager to meet us.

He rears up, to plonk both fore feet on the top of the 6ft steel gates which hold him in, and his trunk swings wildly.

This little fellow already weighs more than 200 kilos, and he's only two.

He happily trots out of his pen behind head elephant trainer Claire Bennett, to show what he's made of.

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Jambo was born at Colchester Zoo and he's been on a training programme since he was just six months old, so that he's easier to handle when he gets too big to argue with. He could grow up to four metres high, weigh more than six tonnes, by which time he'll be eating 16 stone of food a day.

Colchester Zoo is one of the few zoos in the UK that trains African elephants, so that their keepers can move them around safely, and vets may need to look behind the elephant's ears, file his teeth or pour medicine down his throat, without fear.

Learning how to train an elephant is a skill I might never need again in life, but it's fascinating to get an insight into the methods the keepers use. It's also remarkable to watch the ease, and speed, with which Claire - who must be the ultimate supernanny to deal with one of the world's biggest babies - puts the young bull through his paces.

She uses her voice, body language, and target training (wherever she points on the metal ropes, is a command to do a certain action) to issue commands.

Jambo is a fast learner and his keepers are delighted with his progress. He can now respond to many commands, to lift all four legs independently, open his mouth, and kneel on the floor.

He stretches out on the ground, so his handler can reach his back, and lies down. It looks fun and cute, but the serious side is that if Jambo needs to be anaesthetised, staff can get him down safely without injury.

With a sweep of her hand Claire gets him rolling over, and Jambo looks to all intents and purposes like a pet dog playing in the park.

“He's very eager to please, almost too quick,” laughed park manager Richard Spurgeon as he watches. “He's almost doing things before he's asked to. He has a very close relationship with Claire and that's very necessary.”

It's my turn to have a go, and of course there's none of that special bond but Jambo is keen to have a new person to play with anyway. I say 'trunk up' and he obediently salutes, opening his hairy mouth for me to deposit a chunk of brown bread inside.

It's gone in a second and he forges forward, asking for more.

He's so close I can see the whites of his eyes, but surely he's just playing?

On Claire's prompting, I urge 'back,' and a bit reluctantly he steps backwards, only to lunge forward when he spots the next piece of bread. There's none of the lumbering majesty of his elders about this little rascal yet. He's agile and into everything, just like a toddler child.

With Claire's help I get him to kneel, but not for long, and only after he has investigated the taste of my bended knee. He might be little, but the strength in his trunk is obvious – especially after he accidentally swipes me in the eye with it.

At the same moment his mum Rosa, still in the pen behind me, reaches out her trunk and tries to tap me on the shoulder. Dodging so many trunks, means the bread is soon grabbed and gone.

Jambo looks very manageable, but all the time you have to remember this is a very large animal. He's already over 200 kilos and all this training is for the future, to make the animal husbandry easier for both him the staff, and the vet. In the meantime, the training is also very stimulating for him.

All the elephants go through this training process and some end up very 'hands on' especially the cows. One female called Zola, and the bull Tembo, are unpredictable so staff need to use 'protected contact' which means always staying on the other side of the metal ropes.

The zoo has four cow elephants, Tembo the bull which The Evening Star sponsored in 2000, plus youngsters Jambo and four-year-old Kito who were both born on site. Jambo was born after a natural mating between Tembo and Rosa.

“He's quite a character,” said Claire, 28, as she prepared his mountain of food.

“He is usually quiet, but there's a cheeky side to him as well. He's very eager and keen to do everything, and he has moments when he gets over excited! He's with his mum Rosa all the time, we only separate them when we need to do something with one of them, like his training, or to wash her.

“We don't train the elephants to do anything which is not natural behaviour. It's not about circus tricks, it's about footcare, skincare, washing and checking his wellbeing.”

Claire admitted she has even found herself rolling around on the concrete floor of the elephant house, to try the movements she asks the elephants to do. “It helps me work out the stance, and what body language I can do, to encourage them to do it,” she said.

She uses food as a reward, but the main reason Jambo goes along with the training, is because he wants to please. She said: “Food helps, but because elephants live in families in the wild, they their social structure is very important to them and as we build up a bond they allow us into their herd.

“That means they want to please us, and want to learn. If they really didn't want to do what we ask, they wouldn't. You have to respect them for them to respect you, in return.”

There will inevitably come a time when Jambo, as a bull elephant, becomes too powerful and unpredictable to handle. Bull elephants can get aggressive as they don't have the same social hierarchy as cows and see any other male as a rival. When males reach sexual maturity in the wild, they form bachelor herds and eventually become solitary animals, which don't tolerate contact in the same way as females do.

Then Jambo's keepers will have to stay the other side of the metal ropes.

Claire's been at the zoo for ten years, and worked with the elephants for four. Her dream is to see the species in the wild. She loves her charges, but admits she has shovelled an awful lot of manure over the years, to rise to her position as head of the team of five!


Colchester Zoo celebrates Jambo's second birthday tomorrow inside the Kingdom of the Wild Building. Visitors will be able to see his keepers give him a special birthday cake made with bananas, inside the elephant house, followed by an example of his training and then a wash.

Three of the zoo's seven elephants, Rosa, Tanya and Opal are currently being studied as part of a research project to understand the physics of the animals' movement.

The techniques used to capture the elephants' movement is actually similar to the techniques that the creators of “Lord of the Rings” used to animate Gollum.

The elephants are being studied by Dr John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College in a project funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to find out how their size affects their movement.

Markers covered in light reflective tape are placed on the joints of the animals. Specialised cameras then emit infra red light which is reflected from the markers and bounced back to the cameras. The information is relayed to a computer which produces moving 3D images.

In future, this research will be used alongside other veterinary techniques to spot abnormal movement and help identify conditions such as arthritis.

Born: At Colchester Zoo on March 15, 2004.

Role: Cheeky teenager

Likes: Bread, bananas, and had a passion for onions as a baby

Dislikes: Chocolate

Ambition: To be leader of the herd

A baby elephant sucks its trunk like a child sucks its thumb, and elephants greet each other by putting the tip of their trunk into the other's mouth.

An elephant eats as much as five per cent of its body weight every day and drinks 160 litres of water.

They have a good sense of smell

Their trunks move in all directions with precision, and are able to pick up small and large objects and rip branches from trees.

Trunks are used to carry food and water to their mouths or spray a jet of dust or water over their bodies and to make communicating sounds with other elephants.

Female African elephants are ready to have babies by the time they are 13 or 14 years old. They can have babies every four years and they have the longest gestation period of all mammals almost two years.

Calves weigh around 120kg at birth and are nursed for several years by their mothers.

Tembo produced the first baby to be born in Europe using artificial insemination. Collaboration between Colchester Zoo and Vienna Zoo in Austria resulted in African elephant Abu being born at the Vienna Zoo in April 2001. The sperm was taken from Tembo and the sample was flown to Austria.

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