After teetering on the edge of extinction domestically for several years, the Japanese crested ibis took a small step away from the brink when a chick cheeped its way into the world on May 21.
But questions about the ramifications of the birth of this wispy chick have yet to be broached.
Has Japan turned a corner and reflected on the factors that nearly erased the bird from this archipelago? Can Japan provide an environment in which the bird can flourish?
Out of the shell and weighing in at a tiny 55 grams, the downy chick has some weighty expectations riding on its tiny wings. It is expected to help relaunch the species in Japan — big plans for such a little bird.
Now more than two weeks old, the chick is gaining its land legs and gobbling down a man-made mixture of loach and milk under the watchful eyes of experts at the Crested Ibis Conservation Center in the village of Niibo on Niigata Prefecture’s Sado Island.
The bird is the sole hatchling from a batch of four eggs; One went unfertilized, one stopped growing before it could hatch and the other was tossed from the nest by the male when he discovered a crack in it.
“After years of trying, this is the first successful artificial birth of a crested ibis in Japan,” boasts jubilant, but busy Toshio Torii, assistant director of the Wildlife Protection Division of the Environment Agency’s Nature Conservation Bureau.
Sitting behind a desk cluttered with literature on the bird, Torii has reason to be happy — this chick is nearly the sole positive development in a string of failed attempts to breed an ibis.
But while the government and bird lovers alike have feted the new hatchling, there has been scant debate on the original causes behind the bird’s disappearance or the thick irony surrounding the attempted revival of the species in Japan.
The bird’s ties to Japan run deep. When introduced to the West, it was labeled as a bird from Japan and so intimately associated with the country that the legacy lives on in the crested ibis’ scientific name: Nipponia nippon.
But because Japan failed to protect its own stock from extinction, it has had to rely on China’s goodwill in its desperate efforts to revive the bird. “It will be genetically impossible to revive the species with just these three birds (the hatchling and its parents, Yang Yang and You You),” Torii said, adding that the gene pool among the birds is so small that without further crossbreeding with Chinese birds, any attempt to bring the species back is doomed.
Since the Meiji Era, 13 bird species have gone extinct in Japan, and the crested ibis was only one bird away from suffering a similar fate, until Yang Yang and You You arrived from China in January.
Seventeen other species, including the white stork, crested serpent eagle and Blakiston’s fish-owl, are on the “critical” list in the Environment Agency’s Red Databook, while 13 more, including the Laysan albatross and white-tailed eagle, are listed one rank lower as “endangered.”
The lone domestic crested ibis survivor is a female named Kin who is believed to be 32 years old and has resided at the preservation center since being captured in 1968. The bird has been extinct in the wild since 1981, when the last five were captured and kept at the center with Kin.
Poaching, proliferation of agricultural chemicals and a general worsening of the environment took a toll on the species.
Yoshimitsu Sugimoto of the Japanese Society for Preservation of Birds gives a variety of reasons for the ibis’ rapid march toward extinction. “After the Meiji Restoration, when Japan opened up to the world, guns became more widespread and crested ibises were heavily hunted,” he said. The bird’s feathers were popular stuffing for quilts, and its meat was used in stews because it was believed to stimulate blood production and help strengthen pregnant women and new mothers.
Later, the wide use of pesticides and fertilizers, combined with the encroachment of people into the bird’s habitat, provided a one-two punch that effectively floored the species.
Attempts to resurrect the ibis were too little, too late. By the time the government listed the bird as a special natural treasure in 1952, effectively recognizing it as a rare species, its numbers had shrunk to 24.
Ultimately, a lack of knowledge about the bird’s reproductive and dietary habits contributed to the failure to protect the species, Torii said. “It used to be that the area (Sado Island) was covered with sprawling rice fields, and the birds could feed on small animals that inhabited them — like frogs and insects,” he said.
With the 1995 death of the last male bird, Midori, the geriatric Kin became the lone Japan-born crested ibis and the government was left with no choice but to rely on China to provide breeding stock.
While Kin’s predecessors used to fly free and feast in lush rice fields and marshes, the next generation, if there is one, will likely be plucked from the nest and hatched in temperature-regulated incubators under intense scrutiny.
Now that the first of the next generation has arrived, the priority is to successfully raise the hatchling and then to maintain communication and bird exchanges with China, because its cooperation is indispensable if the ibis is to fly in Japan again, Torii said.
While the ultimate objective is to return the birds to the wild, this promises to be an uphill battle. The introduction of birds bred in captivity to the wild has not gone well in China, said Torii, who believes such an effort will take more than a decade to pull off in Japan — if ever.
“Even if we let the birds loose in the wild, if we don’t return the environment (to a suitable condition), they will not survive,” Torii said.
With the long-awaited arrival of the nameless chick, a whole raft of questions, some easy, some not, are begging to be answered.
On the simpler side, the chick’s sex has not been determined. But that will become apparent within a year or two. Even simpler — and more imminent — is what to name the critter.
The Environment Agency has started accepting ideas from elementary school students from around the nation and will announce the results around the end of the month. The agency hopes to use the bird as an educational tool to inspire debate among children.
Once these simple issues are dispensed with, the deeper social and environmental questions will arise. “It would be nice if the preservation of the crested ibis could become a model for the future,” Sugimoto said.
But whether Japan has changed enough to muster the resources to create an environment hospitable to the crested ibis — clearly the answer to this will be a long time in coming.