Missing for 20 years, then a reappearance in the skies
The success of Chinese efforts to bring back the disappearing crested ibis have paid respect both to nature and human intervention
The crested ibis, a bird that had disappeared from the skies for nearly 20 years, is back in China, and now seems to have a very big family.
The bird was believed to have become extinct in the country in the 1960s, but Liu Yinzeng, a former researcher at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his research team discovered seven of them in the wild of Yangxian county, Shaanxi province, in 1981.
Liu and his colleagues had been searching for the bird in 14 provinces for about three years. On a third expedition to Yangxian county their efforts, with the help of locals, were finally rewarded.
The experts immediately embarked on a three-year rescue and research mission, and the local government stopped certain exploitation activities and tightened controls on the use of pesticides.
China now has more than 3,000 crested ibises, according to Xinhua News Agency. Today, crested ibises can also be found in Henan, Beijing, Hebei, Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, a geographic spread that offers the bird some insurance in the event of a potential epidemic.
This is a rare and inspirational case of successfully saving a wild species from a minute population, especially considering that their propagation has happened in the wild, says Dr He Xin, who specializes in ecology and is a bird enthusiast.
In 1981 the Japanese captured what were thought to be the last five wild crested ibises in the country for artificial reproduction. That mission failed, and it seemed to spell doom for the bird. He Xin says he can understand how difficult it would have been to decide which approach to adopt in saving such a small population.
He was attending an information session in late November relating to the Chinese version of the non-fiction book Last Words of the Crested Ibis by the Japanese author Teruyuki Kobayashi in the 1990s.
The book recounts the more than 60 years of protection for the crested ibises born in Japan, which was mainly carried out spontaneously by bird lovers and non-governmental organizations.
Chen Xingeng, a writer and guest speaker at the session, said that in Japan environmental deterioration and a lack of government action was to blame for the birds' loss, and Yangxian county has learned from the mistakes.
All descendants of the crested ibis are offspring of the seven birds found in Yangxian county in 1981, and experts continue to look for ways to ensure that genetic issues do not compromise the bird's ability to produce healthy offspring and thus limit its propagation.
The recent publication of the book's Chinese version has put the crested ibis back on the agenda, Chen said, and he called for more attention to measures aimed at protecting it.
People should preserve their habitats, which will lead to the conservation of many other species living in the area, He said, leading in turn to an improvement in the environment that will benefit humans.
"The rescue and preservation of crested ibises is powerful proof of China's commitment to strengthening and improving the natural environment, and an important achievement of biodiversity conservation," Liu said in a short documentary about him in 2018.
Nowadays, conservation efforts have been helping local economies both in Yangxian county and Sado Island, the last major habitat of crested ibises in Japan.
Farm products grown without pesticides or low doses of them there such as rice and black rice, and related products like rice wine, are welcomed by a growing market.
"Birds have wings, borders are not barriers," said Haruo Sato, the book's central character and one who devoted most of his lifetime to protecting crested ibises.
China and Japan have worked together to protect the species since 1985, and China has sent crested ibises to Japan and South Korea.
The protection of transboundary species requires people to put aside their conflicts and pursue a common goal, He said.
Zhuang Miaomiao of Xi'an, a Chinese-Japanese interpreter and a promoter of the protection work for eight years, says she has been moved by the meticulous work of Japanese experts who pitched in without reserve to help their Chinese counterparts.
Protecting the crested ibis has become a mission that both countries are firmly committed to, she says.