After a comeback from the brink of extinction, Japan’s crested ibis is being prepared to be reintroduced into the wild in four years, an official said.

The bird — with its snowy, pink-tinged feathers, red face and sloping black beak — was once a common sight in rice paddies all over the country and a favorite of scroll painters. But by the late 1990s, there was only one known survivor, kept at the Sado Crested Ibis Preservation Center on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture.

Now numbering 25, the ibises may be turned loose on the secluded island in the Sea of Japan as early as 2007, after they have learned to build nests and hunt for themselves, center spokeswoman Hiroko Nakagawa said. By then, researchers aim to have bred about 100 birds.

The Environment Ministry is considering plans to begin building sometime in 2004 a larger aviary that closely replicates the bird’s natural habitat.

Less than five years ago, Japan had just one sterile, elderly female ibis, named Kin.

A government program in the 1980s to save the ibis by breeding the last five birds known to exist in Japan had failed. Although 140 ibises lived on a preserve in China, the bird — known by its scientific name nipponia nippon — appeared to be headed for extinction here.

But in 1999, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin donated Yang-Yang and You-You, an ibis couple, to Emperor Akihito, and months later the two had their first chick. The birds have since had 21 more offspring. Kin, too, remains healthy at 35 — the equivalent of 90 to 110 human years.

The crested ibis had been nearly wiped out as rapid industrial development, rice paddy pesticides and deforestation had destroyed its habitat and food supply.

It is one of 90 endangered bird species in Japan and among 370 endangered animal species in the country, according to the Environment Ministry.

At the ibis center, 300 km northwest of Tokyo, caretakers keep visitors away from the birds. The young are fed horse meat, insects and freshwater fish such as loach, and are monitored round the clock.

Nakagawa said several problems must be worked out before the birds can be released, including whether there is enough food for them to survive the bitter winters on their own.

Loach and other small river-dwelling fish and animals that ibises had lived on have largely disappeared or been tainted by pollutants and agricultural pesticides.

“On Sado, they would have lots of uninhabited forestland to themselves, but not enough to eat,” she said.

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