OKAYAMA – The Okayama Prefectural Nature Conservation Center in the town of Wake, known for having the nation’s largest population of Japanese cranes, has been wrestling with overcrowded breeding facilities as the birds age.
Officials say that the unexpected longevity of the Japanese cranes, also known as red-crowned cranes, in the center is affecting their reproductive ability.
According to the prefecture, building new breeding facilities may be difficult due to budgetary constraints.
The center’s officials, however, emphasize the necessity of coming up with solutions to maintain the number of young cranes.
“If we leave the situation as it is, only the number of old cranes will be on the rise while the population of young birds will decline,” one official said. “There is a risk that there will be no Japanese cranes left in Okayama in the future.”
After the center began to breed Japanese cranes in 1991, the population in the center’s facilities has risen to the current number of 42. Without natural enemies in the environment they inhabit, the population has been aging, with the average rising to 18 years old. The officials describe this as equivalent to the age of the baby boomer generation for humans.
The oldest crane in the facility is 36 years old.
Amid the rapid aging of the bird population, allowable space in the 24 habitats, each measuring about 180 sq. meters, is nearly fully utilized. Even though the younger cranes are laying eggs, the center has to give up letting the cranes hatch them because of the limited breeding space.
To alleviate the situation, the prefectural government intends to increase the number of breeding facilities outside of the conservation center. This plan, however, has met with resistance by municipal governments within the prefecture, concerned that if they host new facilities they may end up having to foot future bills.
The prefecture is meanwhile reluctant to alleviate the problem by releasing cranes into the wild, saying it would affect the ecosystem.
According to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, there were 245 Japanese cranes bred nationwide as of the end of 2012. Most of the breeding facilities, however, have been facing the same problem of aging populations.
“The red-crowned crane is bred at many zoological gardens across Hokkaido, but most of the facilities lack space,” said a representative for the Environment Ministry’s nature conservation bureau in Kushiro, Hokkaido.
The Kushiro bureau has been involved for years in projects concerning preservation of the country’s largest wetland and marsh habitat of Japanese cranes, which were once thought to be extinct. The habitat conservation projects have been conducted in the Kushiro area since the birds were discovered in the wetlands in 1926.
“While considering releasing the birds into the wild (as one solution), we need to discuss the future of the species, including those living in the wild,” the official said.