Japanese Crested Ibis

Japanese Crested Ibis Toki: Japan's Phoenix is rising from the ashes

Mark Brazil

Japanese Crested Ibis.
Japanese Crested Ibis

On 30th April 1995, Midori one of the last remaining Toki (Japanese Crested Ibis), one of the world's rarest birds, died of an "illness" in his cage on Sado Island, Japan.

Midori was survived by 28 year-old Kin, a female no longer, able to reproduce, who lived in the same preservation centre until her death at a record-breaking age of 36 in 2003.

In biological terms Toki, so totally identified with Japan as to be known to ornithologists the world over as Nipponia nippon, was now extinct as a breeding bird in the land of Nippon!

When the two were originally taken in to captivity in 1981 they were part of the final five individual Japanese Crested Ibises surviving; a small group that had hung on past their peers on the island of Sado. One by one they and their fellows had died.

Miraculously, after the capture of the last Japanese birds, a small population was found also to be surviving in a remote part of China.

Attempts at captive breeding the Crested Ibis involved borrowing a male from China in 1985, sending a male Japanese bird to China in 1990, and borrowing a Chinese pair, but all failed in Japan, and with the species biologically extinct in Japan, and with no more than 50 birds surviving on the continent (and that only because of intensive captive breeding there), all hope for the conservation of Nipponia nippon remained in Chinese hands.

Japanese Crested Ibis.

Unfortunately, China's rare species' conservation record, and burgeoning industrial pollution, was even worse than Japan's, leaving little hope for the Crested Ibises future.

The first documented specimen of the 76.5 cm long Toki, was collected from Hakodate on 29 April 1874. There is no doubt, however, that Toki was very well known long before then. Medieval accounts and drawings indicate that during the Tokugawa Shogunate Toki were not uncommon. This bird of wetlands, swamps, marshes and wet agricultural fields was widespread throughout a country dependent on wet rice cultivation.

It was found at wetlands throughout the country and even those wetlands around the enormous Tokyo Bay. Then, they bred as far north as Hokkaido, as well as in southern parts of Japan. Common, even until the very end of the Edo Period (1868), their feathers were used for fletching arrows, and their meat was considered as a folk-cure for anaemia.

The species was also once widespread both on the Korean Peninsula, and in China, but it declined rapidly during the late 19th century due to over-hunting, habitat loss, and contamination of its food supply by chemical pollution.

During the Edo Period hunting Toki was forbidden, thus numbers are assumed to have remained generally stable, but the early years of the Meiji Era (1868 onwards) saw the Crested Ibis, along with many other of Japan's larger species, such as geese, swans, cranes and storks, declining rapidly as they were hunted for meat and sport with newly available guns and under relaxed laws. Japan experienced a wave of extinctions during this time, and for a while even the Toki was thought to be extinct in Japan; very sadly, by 1995 it was.

Japanese Crested Ibis.
Close-up views in captivity reveal the delicate pink shade of Toki's underwing, a colour known as Toki-iro (Toki-colour).

Former Breeding Grounds of the Toki

Toki once bred widely on Kyushu, Honshu, Oki, Sado, and in southern Hokkaido, with northern birds migrating south for the winter, and accounting for old records of wandering birds from as far south as the Nansei Shoto and Taiwan.

It had been fairly plentiful on Oki-jima until about 1920, but then disappeared there too, and was thought to have become extinct, then in 1932 just 20-30 birds were found surviving on Sado Island, and a further 5-10 birds lived a little to the south on the Noto Peninsula on the Sea of Japan coast of Honshu.

Within twenty years of the ibis's rediscovery, Japan itself was emerging phoenix-like from the ashes of its wartime defeat and the ensuing economic doldrums, but Japan was already gearing up for a period of unprecedented, phenomenally intensive, economic growth.

Development in Japan, just like its precursor, the Industrial Revolution in the west, and Japan's own followers in the east, South Korea and China, did not take the environment or wildlife into account, nor were mistakes, that had been learned elsewhere, heeded. The post-war period of rapid growth, with its rapid habitat destruction and surge in the use of deadly agro-chemicals tolled the final bell for the vulnerable and sensitive Toki.

Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center, Sado.
The Toki breeding centre on Sado Island is well worth a visit, and well-signed (left)
Japanese Crested Ibis nest, Sado Island.
The locations of the first few newborns in the wild for several decades (right) are closely guarded secrets.

Extinction of the Toki

Designation as a protected species in Japan in 1952 came too late. In terminal decline since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the remnant Noto Peninsula Toki population consisted of only 14 individuals in 1957. It had declined to a mere three by 1961, which last nested in 1962 or 1963, and only one bird survived into 1964; it was eventually captured and moved into captivity on Sado Island in 1968 or 1969.

The final population known on Earth at that time, on Sado Island, meanwhile was faring little better. Twenty-seven weathered the storms of world war and survived there in 1941, but that number slipped to 24 in 1952, then fell to just 11 by 1957.

Since then the steady decline continued and despite several ibises being caught for breeding purposes, and despite its cultural significance being recognized by the Japanese government of the time, which designated it as a Special Natural Monument, that final population dwindled to five and ultimately to extinction in the wild, when the last five were taken into captivity in 1981. By 1986, only two Japanese birds Midori and Kin survived, by 1995 just one, and by 2003 none.

Toki in a rice field.
Wet rice fields are crucial habitat for Toki today, replicating their natural wetland and swampy habitat.

Japanese Crested Ibis Life-cycle

Toki used to frequent ponds, marshes, and wet rice fields surrounded by low, well-forested hills, where the large pine or chestnut trees they required for nesting survived. They used to take off from their communal roosts in secluded woods, their pink wings flashing in the morning sunshine, and fly out to forage in the wetlands and wet fields during the daytime.

Japanese crested ibis fed mainly on small, freshwater crabs. Each year in February the adults underwent transformation.

Normally white, with wings suffused with a delightful pink (known as Toki-iro) and their un-feathered legs and forehead bright red, the annual breeding season began as they attained a strange grey breeding 'costume', which they achieved by daubing a black secretion from a facial gland over their plumage.

Courting pairs built their nests high up in large trees as much as 12m above the ground, and following successful mating they laid clutches of 2-5 eggs during April. The lucky ones hatched their young in May.

As Kodansha's Japan an Illustrated Encyclopaedia so succinctly states, the Toki "has become a symbol of the destruction of Japan's natural environment."

However, some Japanese newspapers went further, putting the sentiment more strongly still: "The fate of the Toki symbolises the government's inadequate policies to protect the nation's wild birds and animals" In fact, according to experts, the present laws and administration make it difficult to protect birds, animals or plants adequately in the wild.

Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center.
The captive breeding facility for Toki on Sado is effective, though the viewing conditions are not visitor-friendly, something that could so easily be improved.

And the track record is not a good one. The ibis protection programme not only failed, but also managed to upset local residents of Sado Island, where the ibis had made its last stand. Perhaps there was a parochial unwillingness among the local residents to accept either outside involvement or that birds on Sado were already suffering reduced fertility from agro-chemical pollution.

Perhaps the "outsiders" carried with them the atmosphere of arrogance and superiority of the central government elite. The degree of antagonism felt on the island towards those would-be ibis rescuers can certainly be measured by the thoughts of Haruo Sato, then head of the Sado Ibis Preservation Association, who was quoted as saying "People sent from the central government caused the extinction of the ibis."

Today, that view seems both rather extreme and inflammatory, but then it was perhaps a point that needed to be brought home. Those officials surely had the very best of intentions in mind, though they may have applied bureaucratic insensitivities to the situation. However, when outside specialists, with practical experience of captive breeding of other ibis species, had offered Japan assistance during the early 1980s, they were turned down: a sad waste of expertise that Japan did not have at that time.

Obviously local feelings run strongly and deeply on this issue, with past local familiarity and personal contact pitted against outside biological training and experience. But what has been learned by way of this very costly and failed exercise?

Japanese Crested Ibis in flight.
Toki conservation has really taken off with the first chicks to be reared in the wild in summer 2012, from captive-bred parents. Here an adult flies overhead.
Japanese Crested Ibis.
Excellent illustrative materials at the Toki breeding centre show the dark-grey plumage of the breeding adults, and the yellow facial skin of the nestlings.

Flash Forward to 2009

High in the fork of a tall tree situated on a wooded slope close to narrow rice paddies, was a flimsy, ragged nest of thin branches. It appeared as nothing special, yet its presence was nothing short of a miracle. Alas, the miracle of life had not transpired in it, but nevertheless it represented a huge step forward in the conservation of an endangered species. This was the very first nest built in the wild by a re-introduced Crested Ibis in Japan. Named scientifically as Nipponia nippon, no bird can more clearly represent Japan, yet it was pushed into catastrophic decline, then allowed to slip towards near extinction before attempts were finally made to conserve it and help restore it. None had been seen in the wild in Japan for 27 years.

Not far from that epoch-breaking nest, at dawn on another day, a deep nasal, crow-like taaa-taaa rang out. The bird that made the call was, though out of sight, without any doubt a free-flying Toki!

Japanese Crested Ibis.
Toki featuring in cartoons (left), as characters, and as toys
Japanese Crested Ibis, Sado.
Toki even feature on wooden ema votive plaques.

Visit Sado Island, in the Sea of Japan, and one cannot miss images of Toki - on tourist posters, on dinner place mates, on noren, even immortalised in cartoon images carrying Hello Kitty on its back. Such images though are all that the average visitor can see, unless, that is, they visit the Toki-no-mori Koen (The Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Centre), situated in Niibo. There, under rather poor viewing conditions, one can see, at a distance, and through layers of wire mesh, several captive birds. As a conservation effort it has become a great success, but as a viewing site it leaves much to be desired.

The thrill of an encounter with a wild and free-flying Toki is impossible to convey in words. The distinctive shape of an ibis is immediately clear, and the give away long decurved bill, grey foreparts, its rosy-pink tinged wings, and its short tail. From a species that seemed doomed to global extinction thirty years ago an almost miraculous resurrection of the phoenix has been achieved. The Chinese population was nurtured back to health, and was so effectively bred in captivity that birds could be sent to Japan to aid the effort of re-establishing a breeding population here.

Japanese Crested Ibis.
Leis of origami Toki indicate hope for the successful return of Toki to Sado Island.
Japanese Crested Ibis statue on Sado.
A life-size commemorative statue of Crested Ibis on Sado Island.

Conservation in Japan

In international conservation circles, Japan is better known for its anachronistic attachment to whaling than for its wildlife conservation successes, yet success stories there have been, and Japan must be lauded for its successes and its attempts.

Conservation efforts have allowed the Red-crowned Crane to recover to over 1,000 individuals; work with critically endangered Blakiston's Fish Owl is ongoing, and efforts for the Crested Ibis, with help from China, have taken it from extinct in the wild, to breeding regularly and successfully now in captivity, and finally to being released once more into the wild.

Back in 1980, I had no expectation of this being achieved at all, let-alone in my lifetime. Even in 1995, I remained pessimistic. Yet, by 2008 the captive population at the facility specially built for them on Sado Island, was considered to be healthy enough to begin the first releases, and on 25 September 2008, the very first birds were given their freedom, allowing them once more to return to the forested hills and narrow valleys of Sado Island.

More releases have taken place each year and a free-flying population is becoming established. In China, birds have been trans-located successfully and are now breeding again in areas from which they had once been extirpated.

In a few more years, once birds are breeding regularly and successfully in the wild on Sado Island, we may truly be able to consider that Toki, the Japanese Phoenix, has been resurrected and has risen from the ashes of its once proud population.

Japanese Crested Ibis.
Like a number of other wetland species, such as egrets and herons, the Crested Ibis is also at home in the trees. Here an adult, in its dark-grey breeding plumage, perches where it can look out over foraging grounds in nearby rice fields.

Text and Photographs: Mark Brazil

Mark Brazil

A writer, naturalist and wildlife guide, Mark spends half of each year travelling in search of wildlife and the other half writing about it from his base in Hokkaido.

Born and educated in England and Scotland, Mark spent more than ten years involved in the making of natural history documentaries for television, and nine years as a professor of biodiversity of conservation at Rakuno Gakuen University near Sapporo.

He began contributing his column, Wild Watch, to The Japan Times newspaper in April 1982, and has been writing about natural history and travel ever since.

His latest book, a field guide, Birds of East Asia, was published to considerable acclaim in 2009, by A&C Black and Princeton University Press.

You can learn more about Mark and his work via his website: www.japannatureguides.com

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