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.”

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