Saturday, September 17, 2011

Japanese Crested Ibis: Back from the Brink

A smooth, silent high speed train carried us across the volcanic interior of Honshu Island to the west coast city of Niigata. With Japan's dense population and limited space, the forested mountains are a nice break from land otherwise intensely cultivated or inhabited. Ubiquitous rice fields, turning golden yellow just before the harvest, were especially beautiful along the edges of forest land.
   Before hosting us to a traditional Japanese dinner, Professor Tsuneo Sekijima of Niigata University described research supporting the breeding and reintroduction of Japanese Crested Ibis (called “Toki” by the Japanese). The Toki is very symbolic of Japan; its scientific name is Nipponia Nippon.  Once common across the nation, Toki went extinct after the last 5 wild birds (by then found only on Sado Island) were captured in an attempt to save them in 1981. Those formerly wild birds eventually died of old age, but meanwhile, a small remnant population was discovered in China.  The Chinese began a successful breeding program and gave Japan two Toki in 1999 for breeding on Sado, an island off the west coast that is bisected by the 38th parallel.  Today there are 33 released birds flying wild, with 132 in Japan's captive breeding conservation center.  Though breeding has increased their numbers in captivity both in Japan and China, none of the released birds on Sado Island have yet been successful at hatching eggs.
    Professor Sekijima has a cadre of graduate students working on data collection, measuring food resources in the rice paddies, and daily monitoring the activities of the wild flocks. Seeing such a rare bird up close, in cages, was a pleasure, but then going out at dawn with the surveyors, to see wild Toki flying free, was an exceptional thrill.  Our escort was Dr. Endo, a post-doc student. The Toki's morning flight out of trees where they roost is fairly predictable, and they appeared right on schedule as the sun rose above the horizon.*  Later that morning, while Dr. Endo was showing us her methods for surveying insects, frogs and loach ( a small fish) preyed on by the ibis in the rice paddies, another Toki flew in, an unexpected delight for us all (they generally stay roosting in trees during the heat of the day).  “Toki need a certain landscape including rich rice fields with trees alongside to rest and preen in,” she explained.   “Just because there is a lot of food available in a place does not mean they will come.” As the rice matures, the birds cannot forage among the tall stalks. Sado Island farmers now leave water in fallow fields throughout the year to improve ibis habitat.
Yoishi Kawaguchi , a professor from Tokushima University, was also there studying the irrigation system's effects on Toki and their prey. Open connections between the rivers, water ditches, and rice paddies are critical to the small loach that need to enter the paddies to spawn. Toki cannot land and take off in narrow, concrete-lined waterways, so Dr. Kawaguchi has designed fish ladders and ramps to help the fish pass up from the ditches into the paddies, and urges farmers to leave water in dirt-sided ditches beside the paddy when they drain a field before the harvest.
   We spent an amazing day, moving from event to event on Sado with the National Park Senior Ranger Kei Osada.  “The role of a ranger in Japan is changing,” he told us. “Now we are encouraged to be involved in community conservation efforts as well as taking care of parkland.”
Our first stop on that busy day was a community work-project where local farmers, non-profit groups;, Sado City officials, and park staff were working outside, together, for the first time, to remove large mouth bass and blue gill perch (non-native species introduced from the USA) from local ponds. The fish were introduced for sport fishing, but devour the small native fish and frogs critically important to the ibis. The pond had been drained to strand the bass and perch in small pools. Under the eye of local TV cameras, a flurry of activity ensued, mud flying as men in waders netted the thrashing fish and heaped them on boats and rafts.   Hundreds of fish were caught that would be distributed to the locals to eat. Kei was in the middle of the action (in the yellow uniform shirt), scooping up fish and being interviewed for local television.
Next, we joined a group of local elementary school children a few miles away, who had caught creatures in the Ishida River for a wildlife survey. Though the channel was lined by concrete, the river was surprisingly rich with fish, insects and big, fuzzy crabs. This is part of the local effort to improve things for the ibis by improving conditions for “the small things,” and to involve all of the community in that effort, including children.
   We continued up a mountain in the island's interior to meet another group, this time students from Wasada University, who volunteered to come from their homes near Tokyo for four days. We found them energetically stirring mud in a rice paddy to enhance oxygen flow in the “biotope” -- one of many small wetland habitats rich in food for the endangered birds, newly built throughout the island close to rice paddies.
Finally, Ranger Osada took us to the breeding center, including the “training cage,” where 18 of the birds could fly and get ready for their transition to the wild, later that month. Our busy day continued into the evening, as Ranger Kei escorted us to a dinner with the university students and local residents. The students enthusiastically practiced their English by telling us about their 4-day adventure on Sado. The evening culminated with a performance of traditional dancers and drummers.
    In late September, 18 more Toki will be released on Sado Island and join the 33 birds already flying wild. These large pink birds are a symbol of hope and renewal for all of Japan.   Sado Islanders, especially, have embraced the effort and are committed to making the changes necessary to their human system that will help sustain the birds. The mayor of Sado City, Koichiro Takano, has written: “Our effort a direct response to the biodiversity crisis that confronts humanity, and our efforts to bring back the Toki through nurturing the small creatures on which it thrives is an attempt to restore the environment that is worthy of world wide attention."

*A volunteer with the ibis survey team allowed us to use his photo of a Toki in flight; we thank him, a Sado Island carpenter who prefers anonymity. 

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