Sunday, January 3, 2010

Zoo Keepers go on 'Marriage' hunt

Dwindling zoo populations force keepers to stage animal 'marriage' hunt

While "konkatsu," or marriage hunting, emerged as a trendy term in 2009, some zoos in Japan engaged in their own version of "konkatsu" -- trying to track down mates for popular animals to produce offspring.

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On the evening of Nov. 14, Momoko, a western lowland gorilla at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo, gave birth to a female infant roughly one hour, 50 minutes after going into labor. Zoo officials announced the birth of the gorilla, named Komomo, on Dec. 24. It was the first time in six years for a gorilla to be born at a zoo in Japan.

Altogether there are just 24 gorillas in Japan's zoos -- less than half the peak number of 49 in 1990 -- and producing offspring has become a pressing issue. But breeding has been slowed by aging of the primates. The optimal breeding age for gorillas is in their teens, but of the 11 female gorillas in Japan, six are aged 30 or older and three are in their 20s. Just two female gorillas are in their teens.

International trading of gorillas and other rare animals is restricted under the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

"This is not an age in which you can simply buy animals with a wad of notes," says Kenichi Kitamura, a managing director at the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The remaining option is "breeding loans," in which the animals are loaned to other zoos.

Momoko came to Ueno Zoo from Chiba Zoological Park at the end of 2008. It was the second time that Ueno had borrowed Momoko. She was also brought to the zoo in 1999 and was returned after giving birth. This time, the gorilla that fathered the infant was borrowed from Australia.

"In 10 years there's a chance that the number of gorillas will be less than 10," said Motoyasu Ida, an education official at Ueno Zoo. "If we don't cooperate, we won't be able to overcome the crisis."

Breeding problems also temporarily put the pinch on Kagoshima City Hirakawa Zoological Park. When its only male koala of breeding age died, it loaned two female koalas to Kobe Oji Zoo and one gave birth, but in a disappointing turn for the zoo, the joey died. This month, however, zoo officials were able to exchange a female koala with a male from Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya.

Demand has also been high for polar bears. Two zoos have put their hands up for Tsuyoshi, a 6-year-old female bear at Hokkaido's Kushiro City Zoo. At the time of the bear's birth at Sapporo Maruyama Zoo, the zoo mistakenly identified it as a male, and gave it the male name Tsuyoshi, but when it was handed over to the Kushiro zoo for breeding, it emerged that the bear was actually a female. In no time, the heads of Oga Aquarium GAO in Akita Prefecture and Osaka's Tennoji Zoo visited Kushiro with requests to borrow the bear. In the end it was decided to lend Tsuyoshi or another female bear to Akita.

In some cases, deals are made with zoos overseas. In order to diversify the lineage of its cubs, Maruyama Zoo plans to swap a 1-year-old polar bear cub with a zoo overseas.

Hamamatsu Zoo, meanwhile, with waiting for "brides" for its golden lion tamarins. The zoo is the only one in Japan that keeps the animals. It has asked a zoo in the United States for assistance, but Japan's law on the prevention of infectious diseases restricts the places from which monkeys can be imported.

"We have four between the age of 6 and 9 who are looking for mates, and the appropriate age is 4 to 9," says one zoo official.

Journalist Mieko Kenjo, a director of the Tokyo Zoological Park Society, says the loaning of animals may provide

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