Growing pains for Japan’s crested ibis release plan
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Growing pains for Japan’s crested ibis release plan

  • JAPAN NEWS YOMIURI

    Crested ibises, above, were released last fall to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the first release of the birds in Sado, Japan.

SADO, Japan >> More than 10 years have passed since crested ibises artificially bred from a pair presented by China began to be released on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. The wild population of crested ibises has since recovered to about 370 birds, prompting concerns about the possibility of insufficient food and nesting sites on the island in the future.

Steps should be immediately taken to discuss the issue, including the option of releasing birds into the wild in areas outside the island.

“The population in the wild is growing steadily. What we must aim to do next is establish an environment in which the crested ibises can coexist with humans,” Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada said.

According to Harada, the crested ibis reintegration program is approaching a turning point.

It was in 1999 that Japan first succeeded in artificially breeding crested ibises with a pair from China. Japanese crested ibises born in the wild went extinct in 2003. In 2008, the first 10 birds were released.

As of October, birds had been released 19 times. A total of 327 birds have been let loose, and 175 were confirmed to be alive as of Nov. 1.The first chicks produced via natural breeding were hatched in 2012. In 2016, chicks were hatched by a pair of crested ibises that had themselves been born in the wild.

Local residents made efforts to balance restoring the crested ibis habitat with the promotion of agriculture.

The city of Sado used idle farmland to provide a rich biotope with loach and other creatures that crested ibises feed on, and introduced a system for certified rice that reduces the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers by more than 50 percent. Brand-name recognition increased its revenue.

In 2011, the Japanese crested ibises and the region were recognized for its agricultural significance by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

However, crested ibises have become commonplace in Sado, with some local people saying they are no longer appreciated as much as before.

With the dwindling number of farmers and an aging population, a sense of stagnation has begun to creep in. For one thing, the certified rice requires significant time and labor to grow and the planting area is reaching its limit.

“If the number of crested ibises continues to grow, damage caused by the birds trampling seedlings in the rice paddies will likely also increase,” said Toru Itagaki, chairman of the Hito-Toki no Kyosei no Shimazukuri Kyogikai, an organization including government officials, universities and citizens’ groups that promotes coexistence with the bird. “We’ve been able to get the community involved so far, but in the future, new challenges will emerge, along with new possibilities to take advantage of the birds.”

Locals have long sought to use the crested ibises as a tourist resource, and the Environment Ministry has begun to change its course from an exclusive focus on conservation to using the birds to vitalize local communities.

Ibis-watching is usually done from inside a vehicle, but preparations have begun to establish an observation facility for wild crested ibises, tentatively named “Toki Terrace,” with the aim of opening it before next summer.

The facility seeks to help local residents and ibises coexist.

“The true start of coexistence with crested ibises begins here,” said Toru Wakamatsu, a senior ranger of Environment Ministry’s Sado Ranger Office.

Many experts believe that Sado Island can support a maximum of about 1,000 crested ibises.

Hisashi Nagata, a professor of avian ecology at Niigata University and an expert on the reintegration of the crested ibises, said, “If the population continues to grow at this rate, it is predicted that within 10 years, there will not be sufficient food and places suitable for nesting on Sado Island alone.”

Crested ibises born in the wild have a high rate of survival. There are currently 194 surviving birds, already exceeding the 175 ibises released into the wild. The pace of growth of the wild population could further accelerate going forward.

Budgetary concerns are another major issue. Crested ibises take one to two years from hatching until they are ready for release into the wild. The central government spends more than $880,000 annually on breeding and rearing costs, including the maintenance costs for facilities to adapt the birds to a wild environment.

All of the crested ibises currently living in Japan are the descendants of five birds supplied from China. To maintain genetic diversity, it will be necessary to continue artificial breeding and release using two new birds that arrived from China in October.

The national biodiversity strategy established by the government in 2012 includes a passage describing a vision of the country’s future in which “people’s daily lives are full of living things, with crested ibises and other birds pecking for food and flying gracefully through the sky.”

To make this vision a reality, initiatives with a long-term perspective are necessary.

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