Saving an endangered bird in ‘Orient’s Galapagos’

by Fumiko Yamaoka

Kyodo

Conservationist Hajime Suzuki is working to save an endangered subspecies of Japanese wood pigeon native to the Ogasawara Islands 1,000 km south of Tokyo. His group runs a preservation program for the large birds.

Fewer than 50 of the birds, whose taxonomic name is Columba janthina nitens, are estimated to be left on the archipelago. Long isolated from any continent, the “Galapagos of the Orient” consists of some 30 islands, including two populated ones, Chichijima and Hahajima, with a combined area of 104 sq. km, and the Bonin chain stretching farther south.

This particular wood pigeon is a designated natural national treasure, just one of some 20 bird species in danger of disappearing in Japan.

“I wish to save them from extinction, at least while we live,” said Suzuki, 42.

He moved to Chichijima and, in 2000, launched the Institute of Boninology, a nonprofit organization that has conducted an ecological survey on the wood pigeons.

When the NPO started a full-fledged study six years ago, the 2,000 islanders were wary of their “suspicious activities.” But now they keep track of the birds.

“Our conservation activities must be carried on into the next generation,” Suzuki said.

The NPO also catches cats, the pigeons’ main predator, that end up in the wild after being brought to Chichijima and Hahajima as pets.

Suzuki called Shinichi Hayama, 46, a veterinarian who heads a task force on countering wild animals at the Tokyo Veterinary Medical Association, for tips on killing the cats.

At Suzuki’s request, Hayama launched a program to find owners for the strays.

The village government of Ogasawara, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Environment Ministry and the Forestry Agency, which had been discretely engaged in protecting the critically endangered pigeons, worked together to round up the cats with help from the islanders.

To conserve the birds, Tama Zoological Park and Ueno Zoological Gardens, both in Tokyo, are breeding pigeons for release into the wild.

“We were obligated to raise it at any cost,” said Heizo Sugita, 55, a Tama Zoo official who was in charge of raising a young bird, one of three caught in 2001. The bird was later sent to Ueno Zoo.

Ueno Zoo succeeded in breeding the three to increase their number to 15.

Hideo Kodo, a 54-year-old staffer in charge of the pigeons at Ueno Zoo, came up with a new nutrient fluid for young pigeons.

“The number will be raised to 20,” Kodo predicted.

But there is one major problem with releasing them: Birds bred in captivity are unable to find food on their own.

“The cat-catching operation is highly appreciated. But it will take a decade to release into the wild the pigeons raised in captivity,” said Teruyuki Komiya, 59, head of Ueno Zoo.