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Donna goes bananas on meeting Queen at Whipsnade Zoo elephant centre launch

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh tried their hand at zookeeping as they fed bananas to an elephant at Whipsnade Zoo.

The seven-year-old elephant, named Donna, was only too keen to whip her favourite treat from the royal couple's hands at the official opening of the Bedfordshire attraction's new £2 million centre for elephant care on Tuesday.

The new facility will nurture a full herd of nine elephants with the Zoological Society of London's (ZSL) expert elephant team.

Among the friendly giants the Queen met was her namesake, Elizabeth - the youngest and most boisterous member of the group, who was born the day before the Queen's 90th birthday celebrations in 2016.

Zoological director for ZSL Professor David Field said the Queen was "absolutely delighted" to learn that the 72 stone (460kg) 10-month-old Elizabeth had been named in her honour, during a demonstration of cleaning routines in the centre's 837 square yards (700 sq km) barn.

Assistant curator of elephants Lee Sambrook, who demonstrated how keepers clean the animals' feet and inspect their teeth, said the Queen had been especially interested to hear about the round-the-clock care they receive, and compared it to keeping horses.

The Queen seemed impressed with the centre's state-of-the-art equipment and told fellow team members: "The elephants look very happy in there."

She added: "It's a rather nice change for them, I suppose."

It is 20 years since the older wing of the enclosure was last opened by Philip, who recalled the visit while speaking with Prof Field.

The Duke was "very interested" to learn about the series of technological developments the team has made since then, including obtaining a special infrasound monitoring system to pick up private elephant commutations between members of the herd.

But if Donna and baby Elizabeth seemed quite at home in the chilly spring breeze, Philip was more impressed at the hardiness of ZSL staff, declaring "You must think you're in Africa!" at the sight of Mr Sambrook's shorts.

Speaking at the unveiling of the centre's commemorative plaque, ZSL president Sir John Beddington said the facility "celebrates the exemplary care and conservation that really is at the heart of everything we do at Whipsnade".

He added: "Elephants are facing terrible threats around the world and ZSL zoos and international conservation projects are working to tackle these issues and secure a future for this amazing species."

But after unveiling the plaque and giving Donna a handful of tasty fruit, the Queen's day did not quite end without incident.

Sir John was forced to apologise after mistakenly marching her past a final gaggle of zoo staff who were waiting patiently to meet her.

He said: "I have made the most terrible mistake, Ma'am - I forgot to introduce you to this line-up!"

Wearing a lilac and pistachio summer tweed coat by Stewart Parvin and hat by Rachel Trevor Morgan, the Queen received the perfect finishing touch to her outfit in the form of a bouquet of purple and white flowers from four-year-old Arthur Craft, the son of Whipsnade's general manager, Owen.

Mr Craft said it had been a "truly historic day" for Whipsnade, and a great opportunity for the royal visitors to see the zoo's world-leading facilities.

He said: "It was just so nice for her to be able to see it before it opens to the public", and described Arthur as "an absolute star".

The new centre for elephant care will officially open to the public on Wednesday, when visitors will be able to witness the Asian elephant herd happily trudging through the 3ft (1m) thick covering of 957 tonnes of sand spread across the enclosure floor.

Prof Field said the ability to read wavelengths from the infrasound elephant monitoring system demonstrated how happy the animals already are in their new home.

He said: "The Queen and the Duke were both really interested in the bond between the elephants and the keepers, and the Queen talked about the bond between horses and people, so she really understood that.

"If you go in there now when they're getting food, they just start to rumble happily and you just see the wavelengths going on."

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