Ben Hills

Sado Island: the early summer tourists cluster around the guardrails, peering through binoculars, using their longest lenses, the zoom on their video cameras, to try to capture the creature behind the bars of the massive steel and concrete cages 100 metres away. 

Somewhere in there, perched on a log and oblivious to all the attention, sit two birds the size of geese, each with stilt-like legs, a long black beak and a belly of the palest pink.

Nipponia nippon, the scientists call them; toki to Mr and Mrs Sato; the Japanese crested ibis to Western ornithologists. This pair of birds, a female called Kin and a male, Midori, are the sad stars of Japan’s newest wildlife sanctuary, in a grove of red pine trees on the resort island of Sado in the Sea of Japan. More than $4 million has been spent building their quarters, a staff of four attends their every need, and 1,000 visitors a week pay $3 to visit the museum devoted to the birds and queue to catch a glimpse of them.

Kin and Midori are the last of their kind; when they die their species will be extinct in Japan. This handsome bird, which has featured in Japanese legend and literature for 20 centuries, whose image graces medieval screens, whose feathers adorned the sword handles of samurai, whose name is part of the language (it signifies the pink shade of its belly feathers) will be no more.

Deceased. Dead. Departed. Gone to meet its maker. Fallen off the twig.

Before the century ends – both birds are middle-aged in human terms and Kin has passed the avian equivalent of menopause – the toki will most likely have joined the growing toll of plants and animals which have paid the price of extinction for Japan’s post-war progress, the dark side of the economic miracle. More than half the surviving mammals in this overpopulated archipelago are officially at risk.

With the death of the last toki, man will be able witness for the first time in history, and no doubt live on television, what until then will have been a theoretical concept that happened in faraway places like the Amazon: the extinction of a species.

“It is very sad,” says Koki Chikatsuji, a wildlife curator who came to Sado nearly 30 years ago and has been the birds’ guardian ever since.

“We have tried everything, but I am afraid we were too late. I think the toki’s last message to us is, ‘Look at me – I am nearly extinct. Please don’t let it happen to anyone else.’ ”

The toki is a paradigm for the destruction of Japan’s unique and once-teeming wildlife. Widespread for millennia through the main island of Honshu, the toki has been ravaged by hunting (for sport, food and feathers used to stuff duvets), habitat destruction, the poisoning of rivers with industrial effluent and the contamination of rice paddies by agricultural chemicals.

By the 1960s it was reduced to a tiny flock on the island redoubt of Sado; by the time Japan’s fledgling environmental movement blew the whistle, it was too late.

When Chikatsuji arrived on Sado in 1967 there were only eight toki left. The death knell appears to have been the introduction of the Japanese marten, a kind of weasel brought to Sado to control rabbits, but which quickly polished off the eggs and young of the toki.

By 1981 the numbers were down to five and Chikatsuji led a group of scientists who captured the last survivors with rocket-powered nets. For the next 12 years he cared for them, living in a primitive hut beside their cage on a mountain side, freezing in two-metre snowdrifts in winter, while zoologists tried without success to artificially inseminate the birds and keep the species alive. Now, far too late, they have splendid new quarters in which to die.

But, if several Tokyo scientists have their way, this may not be the end of the story. The team headed by Susumu Ishii, professor of biology at Tokyo’s Waseda University, was established two years ago by Japan’s Environment Agency when it was finally realised that conventional conservation and breeding techniques could not save the species.

Using a system pioneered at California’s San Diego zoo – where the genes of 150 exotic species are preserved for posterity in a “frozen ark” – Ishii has developed a protocol which he hopes will enable the toki to be brought back to life at some not-too-distant time in the future.

Immediately Kin or Midori die, the body will be dissected and samples of each type of tissue placed in 800 test tubes. These will then be stored in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees C in a special vault at Tsukuba Science City near Tokyo, a facility already used by the Japanese agriculture department to preserve genetic material from domestic plants and animals.

If all goes well it might be possible to thaw it out, inject the genetic material into the embryo of a related ibis and bring the toki back from extinction. Ishii says cryogenetics is advancing at such a pace that it could happen in only 10 years. The technique, he says, might also be used on other endangered species – even on ones already extinct, such as the Japanese wolf.

Ishii’s scientific enthusiasm is abruptly doused however when he is asked where the toki would live once reincarnated, and whether a better solution to preserving this and other endangered species would have been not to destroy its habitat in the first place. “Perhaps an island will be available …” he says, rather uncertainly. Then he blurts out, “Of course, preserving the environment would be better … but that costs a lot of money whereas preserving cells, tissue and genes is relatively cheap.”

When conservationist C.W. Nicol hears this he gives an exasperated bellow and buries his face in his hands. “Is that really what he said?” he asks, shaking his head from side to side. “I was hoping for something better from these people – after they have raped the forests and the seas all around the Pacific rim.”

“Nic” Nicol, a burly, sandy-headed Welshman, is Japan’s best-known conservationist, but don’t mention that to any of the official wildlife organisations, who detest him because he believes there are enough minke whales in the oceans to support a “sustainable harvest”. He is the author of several books, a columnist, activist, adventurer, government consultantand star of TV wildlife programs. As a tribute to his commitment, the Government has just appointed him deputy principal of Japan’s first wildlife ranger-training academy – but it has not bought his silence.

Fourteen years ago Nicol and his Japanese wife settled in a house at the foot of the forest-clad Iizuna mountain, not far from Lake Nojiri, a beautiful resort area about 200 km north of Tokyo. Since then he has railed with little success against the destruction of the local environment, a microcosm of the havoc which is being wreaked from the icy marshes of Hokkaido to the steaming tropical jungles of the Ryukyu islands.

Golf courses and ski slopes have carved great swathes out of the forests, precipitating landslides and pouring nutrients into the rivers and lakes: Lake Nojiri had its first outbreak of toxic algal blooms a few summers back. Housing developments have spread haphazardly and billions of dollars worth of roads as well as tracks for a new bullet-train are being bulldozed through national parks for the 1998 Nagano winter Olympics.

Nicol reserves his fiercest anger for the Japanese Government’s Construction and Forestry ministries which he describes as “vast juggernauts rampaging through the country, destroying the last shreds of virgin forest, damming the last wild rivers, without any real consideration for the consequences”. To illustrate the point he takes photographer Mayu Kanamori and me by snowmobile through waist-deep snow-drifts to admire the last stands of mighty 300-year-old beech trees on the top of his beloved Mount Iizuna, which will most likely be logged this summer.

Although about 75 per cent of Japan is covered in forest, most of it consists of orderly plantations of pine and larch and cedar. Only about 3 per cent of the primordial forests like this one are left untouched – a far smaller amount than in any other industrial nation – and only one has been World Heritage-listed to prevent its destruction. Along with the forests have vanished the birds and the animals.

As we speak, not far to the south, conservationists in boats are risking their lives to block the spillways of a huge dam on the Nagara River, the last wild river in Japan. Near the city of Fukuoka the feeding grounds of 320 species of birds, including curlews and others which migrate every year to Australia, are threatened by plans to build a 400-hectare artificial island in the tidelands which form one of the country’s most important waterfowl habitats.

“As far as protecting the environment is concerned,” confesses Masaaki Yoneda, a biologist and spokesman for the government-sponsored Japan Wildlife Research Centre, “Japan is a developing country. I would put it somewhere between Italy and Poland.”

Canada’s budget for protecting the environment, Nicol points out, is 400 times that of Japan, for a country with a fifth the population. Ethiopia, where he also worked, has more rangers and, he says, does a better job of protecting its national parks.

It was not until 1991, says Yoneda, that his agency completed the inventory of animals living in Japan.

The results, published in what is known as the Japanese Red Book, were chilling. Of the 188 species and sub-species of mammals in Japan no fewer than 118 were either presumed extinct, endangered, rare, or reduced to tiny local populations, often on remote offshore islands.

Within living memory (Japan has thousands of centenarians) the last Japanese wolf was killed (it sits, stuffed, in a showcase at the British Museum in London), the last Okinawa flying-fox, the last Ogasawara bat, the last of a unique type of sea lion. And those are only the ones that Yoneda’s agency knows about.

Environmentalists claim the Red Book is far from complete: 11 species of butterfly which lepidopterists claim are on the brink of extinction are not even mentioned.

Many Japanese animals were already doomed before they had even been officially discovered. The Iriomote wildcat, for instance, caused a worldwide sensation when it was identified in 1972, because it had previously been thought that all the planet’s large mammals were known. The government classified it as a “living national monument”.

The wildcat lives only in mangrove swamps on the tiny island of Iriomote, part of the Ryukyu chain which is known as Japan’s Galapagos Islands because of a profusion of unique “living fossil” species. To show his concern at threats to their environment – principally from holiday resorts which are destroying the coral reefs – Prince Philip, president of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, visited the islands two years ago.

There were originally thought to be about 100 wildcats left but pressure from farming and tourism has probably slashed their numbers below the survival threshold. Ten per cent of the Iriomote wildcats left in the world have been run over and killed by cars.

More controversial still is the deliberate slaughter which goes on in Japan of other animals which have not been classified as endangered – yet. In Hokkaido every winter fishermen shoot thousands of Steller sea lions, a declining species of sea mammal which is protected in the US, Canada and Russia. This summer, also in Hokkaido, there will be an open season on bobtailed Ezo deer which have been protected for half a century – “our only success,” says Yoneda resignedly.

In the hills above Nojiri, hunters armed with “pest control permits” shoot the supposedly protected black bears as they emerge from hibernation, even inside national parks. A wounded one which Nicol nursed back to health and donated to what he thought was a wildlife park was butchered for its meat and its gall bladder, which is worth $6,000 for its supposed medicinal properties. Naturalists believe the bears will be extinct in 50 years.

On the beaches of Shizuoka, dune buggies destroy the nests of the vanishing loggerhead turtle; those that survive must escape the attention of black marketeers who sell the babies to pet shops for $400 and the eggs and blood to restaurants.

For a nation which professes such a profound love of nature – from the magic badgers of legend to the lucky paper-chains of cranes and the spring cherry-blossom-viewing parties in the parks of Tokyo – the Japanese, observes Nicol, seem to spend an enormous amount of time trying to destroy it.

The list of species on the brink of extinction, species which Ishii may one day want to chop up, put in test tubes and freeze, includes the Japanese otter, of which there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting for years, the Blakiston’s fish-eating owl, the Okinawa rail (a small bird), the Japanese dormouse and the giant Hokuriku salamander which was discovered only 10 years ago.

As Yoneda discusses Japan’s feeble attempts to prevent these species following the toki into extinction, he takes a telephone call. “That was NHK(the national broadcaster) in Hokkaido wanting to know what we are doing to control the bears which are damaging crops,” he says, and shrugs his shoulders. He can’t win – not against the hunters, nor the farmers, nor especially the develop-or-bust government construction agencies.

“The reality is that these agencies are extremely powerful and the Environment Agency is not,” Yoneda says.

“Maybe in five or 10 years’ time we will have more power.” He pauses. “But then again, maybe it will be too late.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 18 June 1994
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 48
Word count: 2469
Keywords: Genetics
Photography: Mayu Kanamori, Shigeki Iimura/Nature Production, Sado Toki Preservation Centre
1. Midori and Kin, the last of their kind.
2. ‘protected’ black bears are still hunted.
3. Susumu Ishii believes science is the solution.
4. The Iriomote wildcat. The world’s rarest bird – the last days of the toki.
5. C.W. Nicol: ‘Canada’s budget for protecting the environment is 400 times Japan’s.’
6. Curator Koki Chikatsuji: ‘Please don’t let it happen to anyone else.’