Crested ibises in Japan are facing less risk of extinction amid efforts to reintroduce the birds to the wild, leading the government to consider lowering its status on the list of threatened species, government sources said Saturday.
The crested ibis was classified as “Extinct in the Wild” on the Environment Ministry’s Red List in 1998 after all five remaining wild ibises in Japan were captured in 1981. Since then, the species’ rank has been the same for 20 years.
Extinct in the Wild is the Red List’s second-highest rank after “Extinct” and means particular plants or animals only survive in captivity, cultivation or as a naturalized population outside their original habitat.
While the last Japan-born ibises died in captivity in 2003, Japan succeeded in artificially breeding the birds in 1999, using a pair donated by China.
Ten of the artificially bred birds were released into the wild for the first time in 2008, and natural breeding was confirmed in 2012. Those born in the wild also produced offspring in 2016.
About 370 of the birds were believed to be living in the wild in Sado, Niigata Prefecture, and elsewhere as of October, according to an estimate by the Environment Ministry.
The situation has led the ministry to consider lowering their status by one rank to “Critically Endangered,” according to the sources. Still, the lowered status goes to species facing an extremely high risk of becoming extinct in the wild in the very near future.
To reclassify a species on the list, an observation period of at least five years is required, and conditions for reclassifying crested ibises may be met next April at the earliest, the sources said.
The crested ibis, whose scientific name is Nipponia nippon, is about 75 cm tall and weighs about 1,600 to 2,000 grams.
The birds, designated as a special national treasure in Japan, used to live broadly in the region but became victims of overhunting and habitat deterioration.
Artificially bred birds in Japan have been trained at the rehabilitation station of the crested ibises protection center in Sado so they can survive in the wild after release.
Placed in an enormous cage mimicking a natural environment, the birds get used to looking for food, such as loach and insects, by themselves and living with individuals in different age groups, according to the center.
Experts warn, however, that the birds still face a critical situation, with one saying, “It’s crucial to continue the efforts.”
Local people and volunteers have also been supporting the survival of crested ibises in the wild by turning deserted rice paddy fields into feeding grounds and reducing the use of pesticides when growing rice.
“I think (the bird population) has recovered to this level due to cooperation by many people including local farmers. I hope the number of the birds will continue to increase,” said 78-year-old Takehiko Kera, head of a support organization in the city.