It has been 10 years since the breeding program at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center on the Sea of Japan island of Sado, Niigata Prefecture, began returning the birds to the wild. The Mainichi answers some common questions readers may have about the project to rebuild Japan's crested ibis population.
Q: Why are artificially bred ibises released into the wild?
A: The Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, established by the Ministry of the Environment and operated by the Niigata Prefectural Government, artificially breeds crested ibises. The birds are trained to hunt for their own food and then released into the wild to increase their population. Since the first release in September 2008, a total of 327 birds have been reintroduced over 19 releases. Natural breeding has been observed among the released ibises as well as the following generation. Now, about 550 ibises live both in the wild and at the center.
Q: Why did the breeding start?
A: Crested ibises used to live all over Japan. However, they were considered a nuisance for trampling on and spoiling fields. After the Meiji era, their numbers decreased significantly due to overhunting for their feathers. The breeding project started in 1981, with the capture of the last five birds on Sado Island in order to prevent their extinction.
Q: Are the released ibises descendants of those birds?
A: No. Unfortunately, they had all died by 2003. The pair that began the line of the present ibises came from China in 1999. The crested ibises were in danger of extinction in China as well, but in 1989, the world's first artificially bred ibises hatched successfully from seven of the birds found in Shaanxi province. Currently, over 2,000 of the birds live in China.
Q: Why are the birds being reintroduced into the wild?
A: Other than increasing the ibis population, the project aims to create a better natural environment for their habitat. On Sado Island, efforts are made to reduce agrochemical use in rice paddies so that ibises can safely catch loaches to eat. In October 2018, two ibises came from China for the first time in 11 years. The new birds are expected to decrease the danger of inbreeding, and also have diplomatic significance symbolizing Japan-China friendship.