She spent the morning proving herself the model patient and when her check-up was over, she was ready for the elephant equivalent of a handful of jellybeans – slices of apple, carrot, corn and banana.


After undergoing a five-month training period, the matriarch of Taronga Zoo’s herd of Asian elephants, Pornthip, has delighted her keepers by mastering the art of placing her feet on an X-ray machine, allowing them to record the structure of her foot and toes.

Staff are hoping the other four elephants at the zoo will follow her example over the coming months, ensuring they will be able to keep tabs on the animals’ health.

Along with a small group of handlers, senior veterinarian Dr Larry Vogelnest and elephant manager Gary Miller oversaw the taking of eight X-rays yesterday, while another female elephant, Pak Boon, looked on.

Mr Miller said, while Pornthip instinctively grasped the technique, staff expected it to take longer to train the rest of the herd.

"We used Pornthip initially because she does figure it out and we need to figure out our methodology so that we don’t make mistakes and have to do it over and over and she’s good to work with," he said.

Mr Miller said the elephants’ feet were "quite vulnerable" in the wild and it was important to monitor them with X-rays.

"It’s important for us to get a baseline of what their toes look like and what the bones look like, because if they have an injury or get an infection it could go through the toenail, into the toe bone and we need to see what’s normal and what’s not so that we have something to compare it to," he said.

The results will be compared with those generated by other zoos, allowing medical staff around the world to share knowledge.

Although the X-rays are currently taken on traditional film, new technology could speed up the process.

"The ideal thing would be to have digital radiography, which is the latest technology." Dr Vogelnest said.

"With that we still use the same X-ray machine but the plate has a digital reader and it produces an instant image on the laptop."

The Asian elephants have become one of the most popular attractions at the zoo since their arrival in November last year.