Keepers teach orphaned elephants to raise young

by Hisashi Sasaki

Kyodo

African elephants brought to zoos in Japan are often unable to raise their offspring because many lost their parents to poaching by ivory hunters.

But they are smart enough to learn from their keepers, said Osamu Shiina, who cares for the animals at a prefectural-run zoo on Shikoku.

Shiina, 51, is in charge of a family of four African elephants at Tobe Zoological Park in the town of Tobe, Ehime Prefecture.

The wild elephant population is being pressured by poaching and human encroachment on their habitats. Given the difficulties of artificially breeding them, experts predict that African elephants will disappear from Japanese zoos in a few decades.

Rica, the matriarch of the Tobe elephant family, gave birth to a male, called Tomu, and two females named Hime and Toa, following two miscarriages. Tomu has since been moved to the Tama Zoological Park in Tokyo.

When Hime was born in 2006, Rica did not nurture her baby but instead treated it cruelly. To protect Hime, a team of keepers separated the baby from Rica and raised her in the room next to her mother.

When Rica became pregnant again, “she kept watching us raising (Hime),” Shiina said.

When Tomu was born in 2009, Rica began to allow him to suckle naturally. This was good for Toa, born this June, as Rica has become “much better at mothering because she has learned.”

“As long as we take good care of them, they trust us and show due reaction,” Shiina said.

His first job was at Gunma Safari Park, where he happened to be assigned to elephants. That kicked off a career spanning more than 30 years as an elephant keeper, including a stint at the Himeji Central Park zoo.

As there are few books in Japanese on how to breed elephants, Shiina used an English-Japanese dictionary to read one in English and visited various zoos in his free time, speaking with their keepers.

It was then that he decided to devote himself to elephants, moving to Tobe zoo 25 years ago to pursue his career.

Elephants form a matriarchal society where “life is carried down from great-grandmothers to grandmothers to mothers to daughters,” he said. “We at this zoo will work carefully to maintain the linkage.”

  • merrywriter

    How hypocritical to sing the praises of raising of orphans while at the same time processing ivory from the mothers of those orphans for sale in Japan. Not to mention the fact that elephants are not genetically programmed to live in cold weather and need space which no zoo can ever provide. But perhaps it is a blessing that the elephants die young in middle age because they cannot move and travel as their bodies are designed to. What is not a blessing is that living in the small space of a zoo is a long and painful death.

  • jay piper

    Elephants do not belong in zoos, ever.

  • Tini Gall

    Living
    in the small space of a zoo is a long and painful death for all the
    poor elephants because they cannot move and travel as their bodies are
    designed to.No zoo is big enough that an elephant herd can live a
    natural way of living! In the wild No chains and NO bullhooks will ever
    touch an elephants life!