Tokien, Japanese ibis in danger of extinction, rises from its ashes in Japan

Every morning for fourteen years, Masaoki Tsuchiya has gone before dawn to meet a bird called toki in Japan, reintroduced on a small island in the country thanks to a remarkable conservation program that has combined diplomacy and agricultural reforms.

In less than two decades, the population of this bird with pink plumage and a long curved beak, which had completely disappeared from the land, has climbed to nearly 500 individuals on the island of Sado in the Sea of ​​Japan. A rare conservation success when one in eight bird species is threatened with extinction on the planet.

Emigrated from China, toki, also called “Japanese crested ibis” el Japanese Nipponia, today attracts tourists to Sado, and other regions of the archipelago plan to reintroduce it. Under a starry sky, Mr. notes Tsuchiya, 72, conscientiously in a notebook, at every step of his turn, the presence or absence of the birds, observed thanks to the telescope attached to the window of his car.

The number of birds in this place varies with the seasons“, Explains this stout man with a mischievous look to AFP, who many years of experience have taught him to spot the Tokians hidden in their nests. Several dozen birds frolic in certain areas, which would have been unthinkable in 2003, when a female named Kin (“Gold”), then the last survivor of the species in Sado, died at a record age of 36 years.

I knew this day would come, for she was very old and fragile“, remembers Mr. Tsuchiya.”But it was really unfortunate“.


Kins’ disappearance, after attempts to get her to mate with Midori (“Green”), Sado’s last toki male, who died eight years earlier, was widely reported in Japan, signaling the end of a long and futile struggle to protect the bird.

Toki was once found throughout Japan as well as elsewhere in Northeast Asia. Considered a threat to rice plantations, they were nevertheless relatively protected in the Japanese archipelago during the Edo period (1603-1868) by laws restricting hunting.

But the situation changed at the end of the 19th century, and the toki, valued for the supposed medicinal benefits of its flesh and its decorative value of its feathers, almost disappeared. “in forty years“, according to Mr. Tsuchiya. In the early 1930s, there were only a few dozen individuals left in Japan, and the toki was classified as a protected species.

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However, a new threat awaits it with the generalization in the post-war period of fertilizers and pesticides affecting the environment for toki, which prefer to live in the rice fields of insects, small crabs or frogs. In 1981, only five toki survived in freedom in Japan, all in Sado, and the authorities decided to place them in captivity to protect them. But no one will agree to breed in a cage.

freedom training

The same year, the discovery of a population of seven wild toki in the Chinese province of Shaanxi (northeast), and the success of the campaign to protect the species in China revive hope. During a historic state visit to Japan in 1998, President Jiang Zemin promised to give the country a pair of these birds.

You You and Yang Yang arrived in Japan the following year. Others of their Chinese comrades soon follow them, and over the years the toki population in Sado becomes large enough to be gradually released, after a “training camp“Three months.

They learn to fly, find their food and get used to people“, Explains Tomoki, son of Mr. Tsuchiya, who works with local authorities to facilitate the reintroduction of the bird. Thanks to the release in the wild of about twenty specimens every six months, the spectacle of toki flying over the rice fields gradually became familiar again in Sado.

However, this success was not self-evident two decades ago: in Sado, where rice cultivation is an important source of income, efforts were needed to convince farmers to halve the use of chemicals above the legal limit.

People did not think about the environment back then when they cultivated. Their priorities were to harvest as much as possible and to sell their products at a high price.“, says Shinichiro Saito, a 60-year-old rice farmer. Faced with farmers’ reluctance, the authorities had to use carrots and sticks, stop buying rice from farmers who refused to comply, while awarding the” Living with toki “brand to those who received.

“Environmental Ambassador”

Ultimately, “it was the toki that convinced them“When the first ones were released in 2008, Mr. Saito remembers being one of the first to adopt the new standards. The Bird”was almost like an environmental ambassador“, he said, convinced that”when the project started, my boyfriend’s dream was to see the tokien in the sky when i cultivated my rice fields“.

The reintroduction of the Japanese ibis was also an opportunity to fill the many gaps in knowledge about a long mysterious species, for example by analyzing its feces to learn what it was feeding on. By a mistake that it preferred solitude, it was also first let out into the mountains, but the bird immediately flew to the farms.

Many obstacles still await the toki population, half of which of the individuals released into the wild are victims of snakes or weasels. Only one in two newborns survive predators. But the bird is gradually making its nest. There are also nearly 4,500 toki in the wild in China, and a reintroduction program in South Korea started in 2019.

Tomoki Tsuchiya, 42, who has inherited his passion for toki from his father, is thus far from his only aficionado on the island, where the bird, which has become a mascot, is represented everywhere, from t-shirts to milk stones, and even on the lampposts. Toki “is so important to the people of Sado“, explains Tomoki Tsuchiya.”It’s like he’s part of the family“.

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