For 14 years, Masaoki Tsuchiya has gone out every dawn to meet the toki, a bird reintroduced to a small island in Japan thanks to an outstanding conservation program that mixes diplomacy and agricultural reform.
In less than two decades, the population of this bird with pale pink plumage and a long curved beak has reached 500 individuals on the island of Sado, after having completely disappeared from the country.
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The reintroduction of the toki, also called the Japanese crested ibis, from China is a rare success story on a planet where one in eight bird species is threatened with extinction.
Now, its presence in Sado attracts tourists and arouses the interest of other regions of the Asian country that want to repeat the formula.
At 72 years old, Tsuchiya leaves his house every day under a starry sky, takes the car and starts his itinerary during which he meticulously notes whether or not he has detected the animal at each of his stops.
“The number of birds in this place varies according to the seasons,” this stocky and mischievous-looking man, who over the years has learned to spot even the toki hiding in their nests, explains to AFP.
Several dozen birds flutter in some areas, which would have been unimaginable in 2003, when a female named Kin (“Gold”) died at the record age of 36 as the last survivor of the species on Sado.
“I knew that day would come, because I was so old and frail,” recalls Tsuchiya. “But it was really sad.”
Kin’s disappearance, after failed attempts to mate her with Midori (“Green”), Sado’s last male toki who had died eight years earlier, had widespread media coverage in the country.
Yesteryear, this bird was present throughout Japan and in other parts of Northeast Asia.
Considered a threat to rice plantations, the toki enjoyed relative protection in the Edo period (1603-1868) by laws restricting their hunting.
But the situation changed at the end of the 19th century. Appreciated for the supposed medicinal virtues of its meat and the decorative value of its plumage, the Japanese ibis almost disappeared “in forty years”, laments Tsuchiya.
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In the early 1930s, only a few dozen specimens remained in Japan, so the animal was classified as a protected species.
After World War II, the generalization of chemical fertilizers and pesticides damaged the environment of the toki, which feeds on insects, small crabs or frogs in the rice fields.
And by 1981, the population was limited to five individuals in the wild on Sado Island. The authorities decided to put them in captivity to protect them, but none consented to reproduce in a cage.
training to be free
The discovery that same year of a population of seven wild tokis in the Chinese province of Shaanxi (northeast) and the success of the campaign to protect the species in the Asian giant restored hope.
On a historic state trip to Japan in 1998, Chinese President Jiang Zemin promised the Land of the Rising Sun a pair of these birds.
You You and Yang Yang arrived in Japan a year later. Other Chinese comrades followed suit, and over the years the toki population in Sado was large enough to be released after a three-month “training” period.
“They learn to fly, to find their food and they get used to humans,” explains Tomoki, Tsuchiya’s son, who collaborates with the local authorities to facilitate the reintroduction of the bird.
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Every six months, about twenty specimens are released on the island, where the spectacle of the tokis flying over the rice fields has become a familiar sight.
Success was not evident twenty years ago. Given the economic importance of rice cultivation, it was necessary to convince farmers to reduce the use of chemical products in their fields to half the legal limit.
“People didn’t think about the environment when they farmed. Their priorities were to collect as much as possible and sell their products at a high price,” says Shinichiro Saito, a 60-year-old rice farmer.
Faced with the reluctance of some, the authorities used a carrot-and-stick tactic: they stopped buying rice from farmers who refused to follow the instructions and rewarded those who accepted with the “Living with toki” label.
Ultimately, “it was the tokis who convinced them” when the first copies were released in 2008, recalls Saito, one of the early adopters of the new standards.
The bird “was almost like an ambassador of the environment,” says the farmer. “When the project started, my biggest dream was to see toki in the sky while cultivating my rice fields,” he says.
There are still many obstacles ahead of the Japanese ibis, half of which in the wild are victims of snakes or weasels. Only one newborn in two survives predators.
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But the bird settles little by little. There are currently 4,500 individuals in the wild in China and South Korea has launched a reintroduction program.
Tomoki Tsuchiya, 42, who has inherited his passion for this bird from his father, is not the only toki lover on the island, where his figure appears everywhere, from T-shirts to lanterns to milk containers.
Toki “is so important to Sado people,” says Tomoki. “It’s like he’s part of the family.”