Long live the crested ibis

Four crested ibises have hatched from eggs laid by two breeding pairs of the endangered birds on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture (three hatchlings to one pair and one to the other pair). They are the first to be born in the wild since 1976. The efforts to return the species to the wild will serve as a symbol of Japan’s attempt to restore biodiversity, which is being threatened by industrialization and the commercial exploitation of nature.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the crested ibis (scientific name Nipponia nippon) lived throughout most of Japan. They were indiscriminately hunted for their ornamental wings and for meat. Their number dwindled by the end of the Taisho Era (1912-1926). The government designated the bird as a natural treasure in 1934. In 1960, the crested ibis was designated as internationally protected on the initiative of the International Conference on Bird Preservation.

But the government was slow in protecting the bird. Although residents in Sado Island and on the Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture, made efforts to preserve the bird, their numbers continued to decline. In 1981, the Environment Agency caught five wild crested ibises and started an artificial breeding program. The approach was the opposite of that favored by local residents — to improve the environment in which the birds lived so that they could breed naturally. The agency’s approach failed as four of the five ibises died in 5½ years, and the last one died in 2003.

Meanwhile, in the mountains of China’s Shan’xi Province, seven crested ibises were found and a pair was presented to Japan in 1999. Breeding them led to the hatching of more than 100 birds by 2007. Their release into the wild started in 2008. Helping the most recent chicks develop may require sacrificial efforts by local farmers.

They need to reduce the use of farm chemicals and to fill rice paddies with water even in winter to ensure their food supply — such as freshwater crab, aquatic insects, loaches and frogs. The ibis is also known to trample rice plants. The government and people should realize that helping Sado and Noto farmers is an important step toward increasing the number of crested ibises in the natural environment.