Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Celebrating Biodiversity: Asian Crested Ibis

by Olivier Langrand, CEPF Executive Director

How one species came back from the brink of extinction

  Once thought to be extinct, today the Asian crested ibis is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. © Olivier Langrand

The next installment of our occasional blog series, “Celebrating Biodiversity,” in which we highlight the conservation stories of specific species.​
The Asian crested ibis (Nipponia nippon) is a bird so fundamental to Japan that it is mentioned in the country’s second oldest history book, Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) written in 720. The beautiful bird species, known in Japanese as the toki, used to live across the entire country as well as in southeastern Siberia, central-eastern China and on the Korean Peninsula.
In 1934, Japan noticed the sharp decline of the species’ population—just a few dozen individuals remained in the country—and declared the bird a natural treasure. This official status provided to the Asian crested ibis in Japan was a good start but did not prevent the species’ continued decline: In 1957, only 11 individuals remained.

  The species’ survival is a result of a handful of dedicated conservationists. © Olivier Langrand

The reasons for the population decrease were multiple, including deforestation of prime nesting habitat, wetlands converted to rice fields, heavy use of pesticides in agriculture landscapes and hunting. In 1960, the species became so Critically Endangered that it was given the status of internationally protected by ICBP, International Committee for Bird Preservation (now BirdLife International). In 1967, the Niigata Toki Conservation Center was established on Sado Island, Prefecture of Niigata. 

In 1981, the Asian crested ibis was considered extinct outside of mainland Japan, and only five birds survived on Sado. These five were captured and put in a captive breeding facility. Unfortunately, the breeding program was not successful and the last wild toki, named Kin, died in 2003 at the age of 36 in the Sado Toki Conservation Center.

  A monument to Kin, the last wild toki from Japan. © Olivier Langrand

With the crested ibis gone from Japan, the scientific community thought the species was extinct from the planet. However, in 1981, seven individuals were found in a remote area of the Quinling Mountains in central-eastern China’s Shaanxi Province. 
China quickly developed a conservation program both to protect the species in its natural habitat and breed the bird in a facility. Results were positive and an international conservation program began, with China loaning birds to Japan to breed in captivity. It took a few years, but birds were finally bred successfully at the Sado Toki Conservation Center. 

   Sado’s ferry terminal includes pictures of the toki. © Olivier Langrand

In 2008, 10 tokis raised in captivity were released into the wild. Nineteen more were released the following year. These releases were accompanied by a public awareness campaign to help reduce the use of pesticides in rice production areas. 

In 2012, for the first time in 31 years, a pair of released toki reproduced in the wild on Sado. In 2016, the first chicks of a pair of toki born in the wild from previously captive parents were born. After 42 years, the return of wild Asian crested ibis in Japan was a concrete reality.

   A strong sense of pride has been built with the inhabitants of Sado toward the toki; this iconic bird is now seen in various commercial and road signs. © Olivier Langrand

Though this is clearly a conservation success story, we must remind ourselves that, at one point, we almost lost the Asian crested ibis forever. The hard work of few passionate conservationists in Japan and China brought the species back from extinction. 

   The fame of the Asian crested ibis is not limited to Sado Island. Take the bullet train from Tokyo to Niigata, where you board the ferry to Sado, and you’ll travel on a train   named “Maxi Toki.” © Olivier Langrand

Today, not only is it possible to visit the Sado Toki Conservation Center, which still breeds the Asian crested ibis, but one can now see wild tokis in the wetlands, grassy areas and rice paddies of Sado. ​

  Toki in the wild on Sado: one of the 10 individuals observed. ​© Olivier Langrand

Let’s hope that this national recognition of the toki will help sustain the conservation program of this species and that it will soon be reintroduced to other locations in Japan. 
Let’s also hope that more successful international collaborations like the one between Japan and China will lead to the effective conservation of more species.