Every day for the past 14 years, 72-year-old Masaoki Tsuchiya has set out before sunrise to look for a bird saved from extinction in Japan.
Starting his car under the starry sky, unpolluted by light, he works alone in the cold before dawn, noting observations or absences in a scheduler interrupted only by the crackling of a walkie-talkie.
The bird he is looking for is called “toki” in Japanese and its presence at his home on the island of Sado is proof of a remarkable conservation program.
In less than two decades, Japan’s wild heel population has grown from zero to nearly 500, all in Sado, where the bird’s delicate pink plumage and distinctive curved beak now attract tourists.
This is a rare success story of conservation when one in eight bird species worldwide are threatened with extinction and include international diplomacy and the agricultural revolution of a small island off the west coast of Japan.
A warning tale
Tsuchiya, stocky and strained with a sly smile, does not eat breakfast until he has stopped all his stops, and after years of practice he can see chickens hidden in nests through the monocular attached to the lowered window of his car.
He points to almost imperceptible road or wall signs that help him remember where to park and start exploring.
“The number I see in this place depends on the season,” he explains.
A few days dozens of birds appear in an area, something unimaginable in 2003, when a buckle called Kin or “gold” died in Sado’s cage at a record age of 36 years.
Her death means that not a single wild buck remains in Japan, although the bird is so synonymous with the country that it is also known as the Japanese ibis crest.
“I knew the day was coming. She was very old and fragile,” Tsuchiya said. “But it was still a pity.”
Efforts to get Keane to mate with Sado’s latest wild male midi buckwheat – meaning “green” – have long since failed, and she has spent her last years as a curiosity and a warning to the environment.
Her death made national headlines and seems to mark the end of a long and seemingly fruitless battle for the protection of the toki in Japan, where his feathers even inspired the word for peach pink: “toki-iro”.
But now so much is roaming the sky and Sado’s rice fields that local authorities have moved from discouraging impatient bird watchers to training guides to help visitors spot the local icon, and the government is even investigating reintroducing the bird elsewhere.
Wild toki has once lived in Japan, as well as in Russia, Taiwan and South Korea.
They were considered pests that damaged rice plants, but during the Japanese Edo period, from 1603 to 1867, hunting restrictions meant that only high-ranking officials could actively chase birds like bucks.
This changed in the Meiji era and when weapons became more affordable. The meat of buckles was believed to have health benefits, and its feathers were preferred for everything from powders to decorative hats.
“In just 40 years, the tokyo has virtually disappeared,” Tsuchiya said at an observation deck where visitors are now trying to spot the bird.
Until the early 1930s, only a few dozen bucks remained in Japan, mostly in Sado and the nearby Noto Peninsula, and the species gained protection status.
Then a new threat emerged during Japan’s post-war quest for growth: the growing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Toki feed mainly on rice paddies that mimic wetland habitats, and they are indiscriminate visitors who eat everything from insects to small crabs and frogs.
The chemicals affected the birds and their food, and by 1981 only five wild bucks remained in Japan, all in Sado, where authorities took them into protective captivity.
But coincidentally, that same year a population of seven wild bucks was discovered in a remote area of China’s Shanxi province, reviving hopes for the bird’s survival.
Sado’s captive birds failed to mate, but China’s program was more successful, and when then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin paid his first historic state visit in 1998, he offered Japan a gift of a pair of buckles.
You You and Yang Yang arrived in first-class locations the following year, producing their first chicks months later at an event that sparked national television broadcasts.
Other birds came from China, and over time, Sado had a large enough population to consider reintroducing bucks into the wild.
But first they had to deal with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on Sado.
“Back then, people didn’t think about the environment when they were farming. Their priority was to sell products at a high price and harvest as many crops as possible, “said Shinichiro Saito, a 60-year-old rice farmer.
Farmers were asked to halve chemical fertilizers and pesticides to the level allowed by local regulations, but there was repulsion.
Fewer chemicals meant fewer harvests, lost income and more weeding.
And some farmers could not see the point of other proposals such as underground canals connecting rice fields with rivers to increase the flow of aquatic life.
Local authorities took a carrot and stick approach by refusing to buy rice from farmers who rejected the new chemical restrictions and created a new premium brand of “electricity-friendly” rice for those who did.
But Saito, who was an early adoptive parent, said the real difference came when the first birds were released in 2008.
“Tokyo changed their minds,” he said with a crooked smile.
Even farmers who did not want to adapt were “pleased” to see a bird with an almost mythical Sado status wandering through their fields.
“It’s a real story. Tokito was almost like an environmental ambassador, he helped create a good environment for himself.”
Tsuchiya’s daily rounds began with the 2008 edition.
He has since witnessed triumphs, including the first wild-born chicken and the first wild-born chicken, moments he describes with the proud concern of a parent sending a child to school for the first time.
He still runs his own business, although the toky tuck tucked in the folding mirror of his car clearly shows where his heart is.
And the breeding program continued, complemented by birds from China, which are helping to expand the gene pool.
About 20 birds are released twice a year after completing a three-month training program that prepares them for life outside the cage.
“They are learning how to fly, how to find food and get used to being around people,” said Tomoki Tsuchiya, who is working with Sado’s local government to make the island comfortable for electricity.
City officials even set up a farm around the birds to introduce them to the sound.
“As a family”
When the first bucks were released to Sado, there were so many gaps in knowledge about the species that volunteers analyzed their feces to find out what the birds were eating.
There were mistakes: the officers prepared a remote mountain spot for the launch, believing that the birds would prefer solitude, but instead the toky flew down to the fields visited by farmers.
Tomoki Tsuchiya’s interest in toki was supported by his father Masaoki.
But this is the charm shared by many from Sado, where the bird is depicted as a cute mascot on everything from T-shirts to boxes of milk.
“How can I put it? Tokyo is so important to people in Sado,” the 42-year-old said.
“It’s like family.”
Even after training, the future of bucks is uncertain: only about half survive predators such as snakes and weasels, and the survival rate of newborn chickens is similar.
But they have prospered enough for Japan to expand the Sado program, and there are successes elsewhere.
China’s wild population now numbers more than 4,450, and a South Korean project has launched 40 electricity for the first time in 2019.
For Saito, who speaks like a buck nearby, the bird’s resurrection is part of Sado’s greater achievement – a new approach to agriculture and the environment.
“When this project started, what I dreamed about the most was to see bucks flying overhead while the farmer,” he said.
“An environment that is good for toki is an environment that is safe for people, and that’s something that people at Sado can be proud of.”
© 2022 AFP
Quote: Modern Phoenix: The Bird Returned from Extinction in Japan (2022, June 21), retrieved on June 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-modern-phoenix-bird-brought- extinction.html
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