In the first attempt of its kind, three zoos in Tohoku will launch a project Tuesday to swap their female African elephants with each other to form new breeding pairs.

The three are Selcohome Zoo Paradise Yagiyama in Miyagi Prefecture, Akita City Omoriyama Zoo in Akita Prefecture and Morioka Zoological Park in Iwate Prefecture.

The number of African elephants in Japan has dropped sharply partly because imports are severely restricted under the Washington Convention, formally called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

According to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Japan’s population of African elephants peaked at 80 in 1986 but had fallen to 34 by the end of 2017. Breeding has not been successful since 2014.

Each of the zoos has a pair of male and female African elephants of breeding age. The six elephants range in age from 16 to 29.

But the pair at Yagiyama zoo have not shown signs of breeding behavior, while the other two pairs have mated but failed to produce a pregnancy.

The three pairs might not be sexually receptive because they have been together for too long, experts said.

As the first step in the program, Hanako, the 29-year-old female at Omoriyama zoo in Akita, is scheduled to be transported to Selcohome Zoo Paradise Yagiyama on a truck Tuesday.

Two weeks later, Lily, a 29-year-old female at Selcohome Zoo Paradise Yagiyama, will be moved to Akita City Omoriyama Zoo.

The two new pairs will be carefully monitored for about three years for signs of breeding behavior. A study will then be carried out on whether to add 16-year-old Mao at Morioka Zoological Park to the program.

As the three prefectures are adjacent to each another, the stress produced by transporting the elephants is expected to be limited.

“We’ll fully prepare to make sure that Hanako will be safely transferred” to Selcohome Zoo Paradise, said Masaya Miura, 46, an official at Omoriyama zoo.

Selcohome Zoo Paradise chief Takayuki Kanatsumi, 53, said, “We’ll create an environment to help Hanako feel at ease soon at our zoo and mate with Ben, our 29-year-old male African elephant.”

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