“It isn’t in Japan, so why should I care?” is the reaction of some Japanese to the issue of conservation in the Northern Territories. Yet there are plenty of good reasons why it is in Japan’s interest to take a leadership role in protecting wildlife on the islands:

There are a number of avian species threatened on Hokkaido that are thriving in the southern Kurils. The best example is the giant Blakiston’s fish owl, revered as the “god of the forest” by the indigenous Ainu people. Environment authorities in Japan have spent small fortunes to set up nests, band young owls and artificially breed and release birds, to little avail because of the poor habitat on Hokkaido. Kunashiri, a fraction the size of Hokkaido, has more fish owls because of its abundance of old-broadleaf trees for nesting and fish-filled rivers. Protecting Kurilsky offers the chance to rescue some of Japan’s endangered birds.

About half of the 227 species of birds on Kunashiri use the island as a stepping stone between the Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan, along what researchers call the Kuril Flyway. If this bridge between Russia and Japan were degraded, it would sharply reduce the numbers of birds migrating to Japan.

As an excellent replica of predevelopment Hokkaido, Kurilsky offers an unprecedented chance for Japanese researchers to learn more about habitats on Hokkaido, because it acts as a “control” site for comparing natural ecology on Kunashiri and the drastically altered ecosystem on Hokkaido. Ecotourists would be able to glimpse what a truly unspoiled island is supposed to look like.

At a time when development is rapidly shrinking forests and wetlands across the region, Japan has the ability to help ensure that the virgin forests of the Northern Territories remain intact. Conservationists in Russia, Japan and around the world have urged that the islands be converted into an international nature reserve, a place that belongs to everyone. If Russia and Japan are truly interested in building peace and understanding, it is a suggestion they might take to heart.

Friends of the Kurilsky Nature Reserve is a nonpartisan volunteer group. Since Japanese journalists cannot travel freely to the islands, there is almost no understanding in Japan of the need to protect wildlife in the Kurils. The group’s goal is to fill this information vacuum through public lectures and articles and provide whatever financial support it can. In just the few months of its existence, it has shipped computer parts to the reserve and volunteers have cleaned old cameras and binoculars for donation to the sanctuary. It would also like to publish a children’s book about the reserve.