Ibis reintroduction program sees fledging success

by Junji Ueda

Kyodo

Kei Osada, 41, is the man behind the recent success of a government effort to reintroduce the crested ibis as part of a captive breeding program for the species that once became extinct in the wild in Japan.

In the three years since he took charge of the reintroduction scheme at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center in Niigata Prefecture in June 2010, 12 chicks hatched in the wild have fledged.

Of the 12, the eight hatched last year were the first wild crested ibises to leave their nests in 38 years in Japan.

Osada, an official of the Environment Ministry, which oversees the program, said, “We can’t really foresee what action would help the birds reproduce, but that is what is interesting about this job.”

Following the successful fledging of the birds, Osada returned to the ministry’s Tokyo headquarters in July.

Japanese-born crested ibises became extinct in 2003, after their number plunged rapidly since the Meiji Era (1868-1912) due to rampant hunting for their meat and feathers and the extensive use of pesticides.

In a bid to reintroduce the species, the government in 1999 started an artificial breeding program with a pair of crested ibises on loan from China, and the first birds bred at the center were released into the wild in 2008.

Osada was dispatched to the center to tighten management after nine birds that were ready to be released into the wild were attacked and killed in their enclosure by a marten in March 2010.

To stimulate public interest in the center’s activity and raise awareness of the importance of conservation work, Osada arranged to broadcast live the center’s breeding activities on the Ustream video-sharing site and frequently gave interviews.

Osada also held meetings with residents in nearby villages and local farmers as he considered it vital to gain their support to prevent the species from ever disappearing from Japan again.

In 2010 and 2011, released birds built nests and laid eggs, but the eggs did not hatch in either year.

But Osada remained patient, and continued to examine the causes and to improve the birds’ nesting environment. Bringing crested ibises back to the wild would be thrilling for the residents of Sado Island, where crested ibises used to be common, he believed.

Osada’s efforts finally paid off in 2012. Eight crested ibises were hatched in the wild during that season, becoming the first chicks born outside captivity in 36 years in Japan, and all eight later also left their nests.

“It was too good to be true,” Osada said.

This year, 14 chicks hatched in the wild, but only four actually survived to leave their nests.

“Nature is harsh,” Osada said.

Still, it made him smile when a resident told him, “I’m happy to be alive” after watching a crested ibis flying.