Taronga needs a thick hide as price of bringing in elephants soars August 12, 2006 curbing the passions of a maturing male elephant will mean the cost of Taronga Zoo's ambitious plan to anchor an Asian elephant-breeding program climbs by about $6 million. Auckland Zoo was originally going to take an adolescent male called Gung, but last year shelved plans to take any of eight Thai elephants now bound for Australia, leaving Taronga little option but to take the only male or see its breeding plans evaporate. The problem with bulls is musth, an annual stage when their testosterone levels increase as much as 60-fold, and they get brave enough to take on the biggest bull around. In Mosman, where the 28-hectare zoo runs down a hillside to the harbour's edge, managing a bull in musth requires planning, determination and money. In response to a freedom of information request on the elephant program, the zoo said it had allocated $6.8 million to build a special holding facility for Gung, a portion of which will go to refurbishing the zoo's "elephant temple". This money takes the total cost of elephant-related works at the zoo to just over $50 million, $35.6 million of which goes to the Wild Asia facility, which the elephants will share with other Asian species. The elephant project is easily the biggest such program the zoo has attempted, but it denies claims by critics it is a commercial rather than conservation venture. Either way, with total revenue from customers and sponsors at just $40 million a year, the zoo will be hoping the elephants are a huge drawcard. Given the Federal Government's insistence that elephants, too, need offshore processing, the project was always going to be costly. But it is the little items that mount up. There is $2490 for "de-nutting coconuts" on Cocos Islands where the elephants, and their Thai mahouts or handlers, last week began three months in quarantine. De-nutting coconuts, the zoo has explained, involves removing dodgy coconuts from trees so they don't fall on a mahout's head. Then there is the cost of these mahouts themselves. They are now eating their share of a $100,000 pile of food, five times what it cost to feed the elephants on Cocos Islands unless you include the $84,000 it cost to ship the hay there. Zoo staff arrived in the islands early last year when the animals were originally due to land but opposition from animal rights groups here and in Thailand caused lengthy delays, a blowout in the food and other bills with the total cost for the Cocos Island stopover now $1.4 million. Thai protesters stopped the elephants being loaded onto a Russian transport aircraft and Taronga lost its $558,000 deposit. The airfreight bill is now $2.17 million. Permits, agreements and legal fees convincing the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that Mosman was a reasonable place to breed elephants cost $1.2 million, just less than the $1.6 million spent flying mahouts to Australia, hosting a Thai delegation and building the Thais a quarantine facility. Just to shift Taronga's two older elephants to their retirement home at Dubbo Zoo cost $24,000 plus another $1.1 million for a new facility there. Latest estimates of the total cost to get the five elephants to the Taronga Zoo gates, excluding all the works there, is $7.2 million. No wonder the zoo's director, Guy Cooper, has sent letters to friends of the zoo, appealing for donations to help fund his new charges.