Photo/IllutrationA baby orangutan named Haruto. The use of image recognition technology allowed individual chimpanzees kept at Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo, one of whom is shown here, to be identified at a probability of about 80 percent, officials said. (Provided by Maruyama Zoo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

SAPPORO--An artificial intelligence system with features including image recognition is being developed to analyze behavior and better control the health of animals in a joint study aimed at modernizing municipal Maruyama Zoo here.

Zoos in Japan have seldom turned to AI systems in keeping their animals, said officials at the zoo, which is collaborating with outside parties, including Hokkaido University, in the study.

Parties involved said they hope to develop and commercialize similar control systems for prospective use by dairy farmers and hospitals as part of a new business model to be developed for the zoo.

Maruyama Zoo last had a major overhaul of the way it operates in 2007, including setting a target of 1 million visitors. It edged close to that milestone in fiscal 2015, when 980,000 people passed through its gates.

Now zoo officials are planning to work out a new business model to adapt to the changing purpose of zoos. They say the new missions include a pursuit of animal welfare, through breeding in environments that are close to wildlife conditions and the preservation of ecosystems.

“It is essential, for starters, to gather data separately by animal species and by individual animal,” said Osamu Kato, director of Maruyama Zoo. “That said, we hope to find out how far we could go, from a technical viewpoint, in ensuring safe breeding and reducing zookeepers’ workloads, and to determine which animal species we should be working on.”

Officials involved in the study met on Jan. 25 at Maruyama Zoo for the first session of the development project. Participants included Masao Kosuge, former director of Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, who is currently an adviser to the Sapporo city government, and Masahito Yamamoto, a Hokkaido University graduate school professor of computer science who is well-versed in AI systems.

Yamamoto presented the results of an experiment in which he used cameras and AI technology in an attempt to distinguish between, and follow the movements of, nine chimpanzees and orangutans from December 2017 through this January. He said the setup allowed individual animals to be identified at a probability of about 80 percent.

Yamamoto is planning to accumulate data on behavioral patterns of animals in the future. He said he will study methods to inform zookeepers of any unusual behaviors and work out mechanisms, among other things, to allow slight changes in animal health to be detected.

A brown bear, a Malayan sun bear and other animals have died in succession at Maruyama Zoo over the past few years. While zoo officials were reviewing appropriate breeding environments, staff assignment and other aspects of zoo management, they set their sights on AI technology, which they hoped could fulfill a complementary function in detecting cases of abnormalities that occur when no zookeeper is present.

The zoo officials are hoping to present an outline, by the end of the current fiscal year in March, on what kind of studies should be conducted on which animal species.