Editorials

Bringing back the crested ibis

The fledging of three chicks born to a wild pair of crested ibis on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture earlier this month represents a significant step in the government’s program to revive a species that went extinct in Japan and to reintroduce the bird into the natural environment. The revival of the crested ibis, known by the scientific name of Nipponia Nippon and called “toki” in Japanese, has a symbolic meaning for Japan’s nature-conservation efforts since the large bird with light pink wings was once an integral part the nation’s rural landscape. We hope the chicks will grow strong and produce offspring.

The crested ibis existed in such great numbers during the Edo Period that farmers considered them to be pests because of the damage they caused their rice paddies. But when the nation began to modernize in the late 19th century and hunting was permitted, the birds were indiscriminately targeted for their meat and feathers. The government responded to their dwindling numbers by designating the crested ibis as a “natural monument” under the Law on Protection of Cultural Properties in 1934, and upgraded the status to a “special natural monument” in 1952 in view of the growing risk of extinction. On the initiative of the International Conference on Bird Preservation, the crested ibis was declared in 1960 as an internationally protected bird.

But the government’s protection efforts were too little, too late. Although areas were established where hunting was banned, no restrictions were imposed on development projects around the birds’ habitats. Conservation efforts by residents in Sado and in the Noto Peninsula, Ishikawa Prefecture — the two remaining main habitats of the crested ibis in this country — failed to stem the decline in their numbers.

In 1981, the then Environment Agency captured the five crested ibises that remained in the wild and began an artificial breeding program. But this approach was the opposite of what was called for by the local residents, who emphasized the importance of improving the birds’ habitat environment so that they could breed naturally. What had precipitated the fall in the number of crested ibises during the age of high economic growth was the widespread use of agricultural chemicals in their habitat, which killed the frogs and loaches upon which the birds fed. The nation’s last wild-born female crested ibis died in 2003.

Since then, the government’s program to revive the crested ibis has depended on birds donated by China that have the same genetic characteristics as the Japanese crested ibis. While it is extremely difficult to revive species that are on the verge of extinction, the Environment Ministry’s Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center has succeeded in increasing the number of birds through artificial breeding. In 2008, 10 crested ibises were first reintroduced into the wild on Sado Island. Of the total of 233 crested ibis released on the island since, about 150 are estimated to remain. The program has been aided by the cooperation of local farmers, who have reduced the amount of agricultural chemicals they use.

The fledging of chicks confirmed by the Environment Ministry this month comes on the heels of these efforts. Two chicks, whose births were confirmed in late April, fledged (which means to stand on both legs outside the nest, according to the ministry’s definition) on June 1, followed by another chick on June 7. After fledging, crested ibis chicks should be able to fly from the nest to the ground and back within seven to 10 days, and their parents continue to feed them for about a month. The ministry expects more than 30 chicks will fledge this year, including seven born to wild pairs.

It is said that at least 1,000 birds are needed for a population to exist in the wild without human help. The fledging of chicks on Sado Island suggests that this goal is attainable. Since crested ibises on the island in the past flew several hundred kilometers over the sea to other parts of the country, the birds’ breeding areas may spread to parts of Honshu.

Past efforts have helped revive other species of large birds On Tori Island, 580 km south of central Tokyo, the number of short-tailed albatrosses — which in the early postwar years was feared to have gone extinct — has grown to about 4,000. Since the island is an active volcano, some of the birds have been moved to Muko Island, part of the Ogasawara Islands 1,000 km south-southeast of Tokyo, to create a new breading area and the first fledging of a chick has been confirmed. A program to revive the population of Oriental storks in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, is also making steady progress. But it must not be forgotten that many other animal species remain endangered in this country — such as the Okinawa rail, the Iriomote wildcat and the Tsushima leopard cat — despite efforts to protect them.

The fledging of the crested ibis chicks on Sado Island should serve as a reminder that humans are responsible for the disappearance of many species, but that with the right efforts humans can also save endangered species from extinction. We must learn from the past mistakes that drove species to extinction, and save those that are currently endangered.