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Expectations are running high that Shabani, a male gorilla famed for his “good looks,” may win the prize for most popular animal at Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Nagoya.

If Shabani wins the biennial contest, which is determined by visitor vote, he will be the first gorilla to do it in 44 years, deposing the reigning champions koalas and elephants.

“I like giraffes and koalas, too, but I think the gorillas will win this year,” said Mayuko Masuda, 38, a stay-at-home mom from Chikusa Ward who went to the zoo on Oct. 19 with her 3-year-old son. She had just submitted her vote at the entrance gate.

Visitors were able to select up to three species on each voting slip and Masuda entered gorillas as one of them.

“Gorillas look cool with their big arms and muscular bodies. I saw Shabani surrounded by a crowd again today,” she added.

The contest became a zoo tradition after the first one in 1968. This year’s is the 16th.

In the beginning, the contest was held every two to four years. But in 1986 it was changed to once every two years, with the top 10 animals announced to the public.

Koalas — the zoo’s biggest attraction — have always won by a huge margin. Since they first arrived from Australia in 1984, they have received the blessing of everyone, from kids to the elderly.

Since 1986, the koalas have won the contest 13 times, including a tie with the elephants in 2006.

The elephants, a favorite since the zoo opened eight decades ago, took back their title as most popular animal in 2014 after the birth of Sakura, an Asian elephant, the previous year.

The gorillas, by contrast, have failed to win wide support and their status has dropped in recent years.

It wasn’t for lack of effort — they won the first and second votes back when the zoo had a gorilla show in which the animals danced and played music. After the they grew up, however, the show was discontinued in 1968 and the popularity of the gorillas plummeted.

But Shabani is about to change the tide.

Last year, Shabani’s masculine appearance started gathering attention and his popularity skyrocketed.

There are about 150 different souvenirs related to Shabani, including T-shirts and photo albums, on sale at the zoo’s gift shop. They account for nearly half of all the shop’s sales.

“Koalas and elephants have their strengths, but now we have the gorillas as a strong contender, too. I think it will be a close contest,” said zoo spokesman Takayuki Ishikawa, 33.

Voting ended Sunday. If the name of a specific animal was submitted, it was counted as a vote for its species. For example, if someone voted for Shabani, the ballot was counted as a vote for the gorillas.

The zoo is set to announce the winner in the middle of this month.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Oct. 22.

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