Pottering in a paradise too easily lost


Whenever I get the chance I like to spend time in Okinawa, which is where I am writing this. As I said to my long-suffering editor, who is getting this article in longhand, I am here to work on the first draft of a novel in Japanese, so I sit at a table loaded with books and dictionaries, a big window in front of me overlooking a sea of various hues of blue. I’ll be here for about a month, working on the book, going to a dojo to practice stick-fighting, swimming, kayaking, swilling Orion beer and awamori, and generally pottering about.

One of my favorite places in Okinawa is Yambaru, as the relatively undeveloped, forested northern area of the main island, Okinawa, is known. The Environment Ministry has a Wildlife Center there, 100 km from Naha City in the little community of Kunigami.

Yambaru is home to many unique species, the most famous of which is the Okinawa rail (Yambaru kuina) — a funny-looking water bird with an orange beak and legs that was discovered by ornithologists in 1981.

When I first came to Okinawa in 1975 (as assistant manager of the Canadian Pavilion at the International Ocean Exposition), I met a photographer, Masakazu Kudaka, a native Okinawan living in Kunigami. Mr. Kudaka has devoted his life to recording the natural and cultural beauty of Okinawa. In 1994, together with the Wild Bird Society of Japan, he published a magnificent book titled “Yambaru no Mori (The Yambaru Forest).”

I renewed my acquaintance with Mr. Kudaka because he is an outstanding and outspoken champion of wildlife conservation, and because many of my friends are alarmed at the decline of wildlife in the Yambaru area.

This is mostly due to “development,” which in Japan usually means replacing nature with concrete. A major killer of creatures such as young rails, mountain turtles and so on are the concrete sluices laid beside roads or replacing natural streams. When even a little water is running in these sluices creatures get washed away, and when dry, once a small animal falls in it is soon spotted by crows, which are on the increase due to more raw garbage being left around. Feral cats are also an increasing problem.

Most alarming, however, is rampant poaching. The “Harry Potter” books have nurtured a craze for pet owls. A young owl taken from the wild can fetch 400,000 yen or more. Other birds taken are bush warblers, Okinawan robins and the pretty little white-eye.

For poachers, though, easily the most lucrative target is a beetle that was “discovered” in Yambaru in 1983. This is the long-armed scarab beetle (Yambaru te-naga koganei), whose 6-cm-long forelegs are the same length as its body. Collectors will pay huge sums of money for this beetle. I have heard of them changing hands for anything from 200,000 yen on up the to price of a small car. The Environment Ministry has put this beetle on its “critically endangered” list — which has only made the demand go up among bug-mania freaks.

The beetle grubs are raised in the soft mold inside old trees. Females spend most of their life in the hollows, so if you see a beetle outside, it is likely to be a male. Apparently you can hear the grubs munching away at the wood if you put your ear to the trunk.

Poachers will go to extraordinary lengths to get at the grubs and females. They whack large nails into trees to make ladders. They chop open the hollows. In some cases they even take a chainsaw and cut a tree down. Of course, trees with hollows are old trees, crucial to the diversity of the forest.

There are far too few rangers in Japan and they have practically no authority. Two of my friends — one a nature guide and the other, Mr. Kudaka — have had their lives threatened in Yambaru by poachers armed with sickles. (The guide is a highly ranked martial artist so he subdued the poachers. Mr. Kudaka took pictures and handed them to the police. The police did nothing.)

The poachers take the grubs and raise them, claiming they are “cultured.” Then they sell the adults. There is no control, and as far as I’m concerned, the Environment Ministry is pathetically weak.

The northern end of the main island is where U.S. forces train in jungle warfare, which is a major reason for so much forest being left there. Should this land be returned to Japan, then I and many others fervently hope that as much of it as possible will be declared a national park. Even if rangers are thin on the ground, dedicated guides, educators and photographers can spot poachers and at least get better records of them. Shame is a strong curtailing factor in Japan.

As a passport-holding Japanese citizen, I am ashamed to say that this country has the worst problem with poachers of any so-called “civilized” nation I know. If we don’t move to preserve wildlife, the only “eco” we’ll have left for tourism will be empty echoes off more and more concrete.