Oita: Farmers grow sugarcane on abandoned paddies to feed elephants at Oita zoo

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Elephants eat locally grown sugarcane at the African Safari wildlife park in Usa, Oita Prefecture.

BEPPU, Oita — Sugarcane is being grown in abandoned rice fields to feed Asian elephants at a local zoo in Oita Prefecture, providing one solution to the problem of deserted farm land that is increasing year by year as the population ages.

There are five Asian elephants at the African Safari wildlife park in the city of Usa, which is near the Beppu hot spring resort area.

Elephants in Thailand and other countries naturally eat sugarcane and other wild plants, but at the Usa park they have mainly been eating pasture grass.

The zoo used to order sugarcane from Okinawa and the Amami Islands, where sugarcane cultivation is prevalent, but they could only secure enough to provide it at events, due to high transportation costs. That sugarcane was only available as processed short stalks.

Addressing the increasing amount of abandoned farmland in Oita Prefecture, the local office of the agriculture ministry reached out to young farmers with an appeal to grow sugarcane, to which a group of farmers in Beppu responded.

The farmers began cultivating sugarcane in late March last year on a total of about 500 square meters of abandoned land and other fields. Harvesting continued until December, reaching about 1.8 tons.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Keisho Tsunematsu, center, a member of a local farmers group, plants sugarcane in a field in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

When shipping costs are factored, the locally grown sugarcane is far more economical than that from Okinawa and Amami.

This year, they expect to harvest 14.4 tons on 3,600 square meters of fields.

Since September, the zoo has been feeding the elephants sugarcane grown in the prefecture on a trial basis.

The elephants will hold several stalks of sugarcane about three meters long with their trunks, crunching away as they eat.

“It’s fresh, so the elephants become happy and more active,” said Iwai Kanda, director of African Safari and a veterinarian. “It also helps that the cost is low.”

On March 11, sugarcane was planted once again in terraced rice fields in Beppu.

“We are grateful that we know from the beginning where we will sell our products,” said Keisho Tsunematsu, a member of the local farmers group. “Next year, we would like to expand our planting to increase the yield and use all the abandoned land.”

Tsunematsu said he also envisions expanding beyond the zoo to refining sugarcane and using it for processed products.