Seventy-eight chimpanzees once used for medical testing will now give researchers insights into how to improve geriatric care for humans.
Since a ban on medical testing on chimpanzees last year, the aging primates have been living out their days at a luxurious ape "retirement" center run in Kumamoto Prefecture by a pharmaceutical company.
A new research wing will open at the center on Aug. 1 to study the aging process in primates.
The project, an initiative of Kyoto University and Nagoya-based Sanwa Kagaku Kenkyusho Co. pharmaceutical company, will be funded by drug companies.
Chimps were first brought to Japan by drug companies in the 1970s for research on infectious diseases caused by viruses and bacteria and for new drug trials.
Chimps are now classified as endangered. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the Washington Convention, Japan banned the import and export of the primates since 1980.
With mounting pressure from animal rights activists to stop experiments on living animals, experiments on chimps were halted in Japan last year.
Sanwa Kagaku Kenkyusho had been keeping chimps for research since 1978. The company constructed a breeding facility in Uki, Kumamoto Prefecture, in 1982 which has ultimately expanded to 3.3 hectares.
In response to last year's ban, the facility was renamed from "Kumamoto Reichorui (Primate) Park" to "Chimpanzee Sanctuary Uto" this April.
The sanctuary has also taken in chimpanzees from five other research facilities in Japan, bringing the total population to 78.
After discussions with Tetsuro Matsuzawa, primatologist and director of the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, the company decided to donate a total of 150 million yen over a five-year period to run the center, while the research institute would take over management.
The institute invited Genichi Idani, director of Hayashibara Great Ape Research Institute, as visiting professor. Other staff will be brought in who specialize in geriatric medicine and who have been trained to prepare a suitable environment for the primates. The center will rely on industry to fund research chairs.
The chimp sanctuary will be run with the apes' happiness in mind. Meals will be more varied, and will be spaced throughout the day. Seasonal menus will be included to spice up their diet.
The chimps will be able to pick and choose their own bedding. An array of toys will be on offer to keep them occupied. The animals will be able to romp around in a spacious exercise area. They will not be kept in cages but be urged to live in groups.
Seventeen chimpanzees that have hepatitis C caused by past experiments will undergo proper treatment at the sanctuary.
"We would like to see what it really means for a chimpanzee to live out its lifespan with the cooperation of these chimps," Matsuzawa said. "Hopefully, in turn, we will learn something about welfare and longevity for humans."