Message of 20070615

Problems of bird conservation in Japan

Oral presentation made by Yamagishi Satoshi at the 21st Pacific Science Congress, 15 June 2007, at Okinawa Convention Center

photo:satoshi yamagishi

Your Imperial Highness, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen :

I am Satoshi Yamagishi, Director General of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology. It is a difficult task to speak after such a dignified speech by Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado. However, I would like to speak very briefly, including my intention in organizing this session, hoping that it serves as a trigger for your later discussions.

I must begin with an apology. I do not have the materials to use up all the time that was offered to me. I will probably finish within about half of the given time, and so I would like to offer the remaining time to the other speakers so that it allows for a good use of everyone's time.

As you all know well, Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 saw the adoption of two conventions, one was the "Framework Convention of Climate Change", and the other was the "Convention on Biological Diversity". "The Convention on Biological Diversity" defines biological diversity in three levels, gene, species and ecology, and calls for conservation of all three levels.

Japan ratified the convention the year after the adoption, and formulated the "National Biodiversity Strategy of Japan" in 1995 according to the convention provision. This strategy is to be revised approximately every 5 years, and in the year 2002, the "New Biodiversity Strategy" was developed. This year, 2007 is 5 years from that, and the strategy is currently under revision for the development of the "New-New Biodiversity Strategy".

However, the National Biodiversity Strategy is unfortunately far from being recognized by the public. According to the questionnaire conducted by the Ministry of the Environment, only 30% of the people are familiar with the word "biodiversity", and only 6.5% are familiar with the existence of the "National Biodiversity Strategy". Insufficient publicity and education are often blamed for such lack of public awareness, but is that all?

First of all, I believe that people are in fact interested in the biodiversity in the area that they live in, before being interested in the "national strategy". The national strategy is difficult to picture for the individuals. Rather, one would first think of the conservation of biodiversity in their immediate area, in their village, city or prefecture. As the National Red Data Book lead to the makings of the prefectural or city level red data books, and then spread to the public, I believe that there is a need for a "regional biodiversity strategy" to be considered in each region. We are lacking this, and perhaps that is a reason why biodiversity does not easily seep into the public.

The next point is an issue of more importance. I think that this national strategy is acknowledged only among a limited number of researchers, and is actually not recognized by many researchers in this field. The reason why I say this is because it feels that the "National Biodiversity Strategy" is being looked away by majority of the researchers. Is it a badly made strategy? I cannot possibly think that that is true. If you read it thoroughly, you will find that it is indeed a very well made document. I think that the reason is nothing but a lack of sense of ownership among researchers.

In carrying forward the national policies, the government first develops a plan, and then a counseling body, consisting of some researchers called academic experts, accepts it. It allows for an efficient deliberation. However, perhaps such top-down approach is driving away many researchers.

A big reason why researchers turn away, I believe, is this efficiency driven approach, where the government makes a plan and consults only with a limited number of researchers. This is probably one of the major reasons why majority of researchers lack sense of ownership. Furthermore, the basic stance becomes "protecting nature that can be protected" in the given circumstances, rather than "protecting nature that needs to be protected". The style is "do what you can do" rather than "do what you should do". This can no longer be called a "strategy". If such an approach is repeated for a long time, it becomes unappealing to researchers. They think "not again" and turn away.

Perhaps the general public is sort of aware that the national strategy is being looked away by many academicians, and has generated a feeling of unacceptability, or if I say without a fear for exaggeration, a sense of rejection.

Another reason, and perhaps a bigger reason why the "National Biodiversity Strategy" is not recognized by the public, is that the researchers are not able to explain or convince of a need for biodiversity conservation in an easy to understand manner and with urgency. In other words, it's hard to say that its substance has been thoroughly researched. It is not possible to publicize or educate with something without a substance. The issue of "climate change" relates to us within our lifetime, however, the impact of "biodiversity" comes much later, and its inevitability is difficult to understand. Thus it is difficult to capture it as our own problem. This is probably another reason why biodiversity does not easily get widely recognized.

So what shall we do about it? For the "National Biodiversity Strategy" to establish itself within the public, first we need to encourage the research community as a whole to participate. It is important that various academic societies get involved. In this regard, the role of the Science Council, as the overseeing body of these societies, would be considerable. Even if it is lead by the Science Council, it should not be a top-down approach. We need to find a bottom-up approach involving individual societies, and make the "biodiversity issue" an issue not only for the few counselors for the government, but also for all researchers. The conclusion from there then should be widely publicized and taught to the public. The Science Council has an important mission to fulfill.

Finally, as the title is "Problems of Bird Conservation in Japan", I would like to now speak about this issue with the context of birds. If you ask the government what the national strategy for bird conservation is, they will respond to you with an answer that the two bibles for policy planning are the "red data list" and "species listed in the Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora", and these are superposed to set priorities for developing plans for protection and rehabilitation programmes, and conservation is done accordingly. I would like to now look into this process and verify.

The red data list was revised last December. According to the list, there are about 700 bird species in Japan, and 92 species, about 13% of the total, are threatened species. Among them, species whose protection is important are called "National Endangered Species", and are the 39 species in the list that I have distributed to you.
(>> See "Table National endagered species(AVES)")
Furthermore, among them, the species that need to be protected urgently are 14 species that are marked with dots, and for these species, budget is secured and the plans for protection and rehabilitation programmes are formulated. However, it is not clear who selects these species, and how. As for the Red Data Book, the names of the persons who selected the species have now become open to the public, however, with regard to the species list related to the Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or species targeted for the protection and rehabilitation programmes, it is not transparent how they were selected and with how much necessity.

I would like to talk about the issue of Japanese crested ibis (toki/ Nipponia Nippon), which is the second species with a dot in the list. It is listed as an Extinct in the Wild species in the list, as I consider that the Japanese crested ibis has been extinct since the time the last captive Japanese crested ibis, "Kin", died in 2003. Currently a project is being implemented with an initiative by the Ministry of the Environment, to artificially raise and breed Chinese ibis, and to reintroduce them in nature in Sado Island in Niigata, once a home to Japanese crested ibis. The "acclimation facility", where ibis are acclimated prior to being released into nature, has been recently completed in Sado at a cost of about 1.4 billion yen. Release testing will be conducted next year in 2008.

I would like to say that the same issue is relevant here. In order to spend so much money to recover into the Japanese sky something that has once been extinct, there has to be more than the feeling of nostalgia, but an apparent reason that is convincing to most people. However, it appears to me that there has not been sufficient consensus among the public for implementing the project.

It does not mean that I am against the reintroduction of Japanese crested ibis. In fact, I am in favor of this project, and the reason for that is as follows.

Research results of Japanese and Chinese ibis have indicated that:

1) Japanese crested ibis and Chinese ibis are the same species under the taxonomic classification;
2) Genetically, when the entire nucleotide sequences of mitochondrial DNA (16,782bps) of the two were compared, the difference was only 14 (0.08%);
3) There has been a total of 5 haplotypes recognized in the mitochondrial DNA control region, and Chinese haplotype has been discovered from the specimen of Japanese crested ibis.

These three research results strongly suggest that Japanese and Chinese ibis can be considered approximately the same.

Based on that premise, I believe that the successful reintroduction of Japanese crested ibis will:

1) become the first step in the world to restore the past distribution of ibis, and safeguard its population.
2) Secondly, it will redistribute ibis in its past habitats in Japan and will lead to recovery of the ecosystem that allows for inhabitation of ibis.
3) Thirdly, the successful reintroduction will set a stage to think about conservation strategy of the overall wildlife in Japan.
4) It can also play a role in promoting Japan - China friendship.

These are some of my own reasons for supporting the project. I believe that such issues need thorough discussions.

As I mentioned earlier, 14 species marked with dots in the list are targeted for protection and rehabilitation programmes. Are these important 14 species reflecting the degree of criticalness specified in the red data list? Not really. As I shown in the foot note in the distributed table, among the 14 species, 6 species (43%) are critically endangered, the highest rank in the red data list. 2 species (14%) are endangered, and 5 species (36%) are vulnerable. As you can see, 14 species include species that are not critically endangered, yet there are still 15 critically endangered species left that are not included.

These are not the only case for birds. It is also true for fish, reptiles, amphibian, or mammals. The national strategy should be a comprehensive vision of how we are going to protect the overall fauna and flora. The big problem of our country is that we are missing this. If we protect from the species for which, coordination with other ministries or land owners is complete, or loud voice researcher insists, or regional conservation activities are in a boom, we cannot avoid being labeled somewhat unprincipled. I would like to see that Japan sets up a national authoritative council for deciding priorities for rehabilitation and maintenance of viable populations, and if possible consult with a counseling body such as Scientific Council of Japan, and decide on the conservation priorities in a fair manner. The government says that "We have done from what we could and have built our achievements little by little". I do see their point, but the time has come to develop a comprehensive master plan.

Once the priorities for the species protection are established, the next problem would be that the plans for protection and rehabilitation programmes do not include concrete targets. The plans are positioned within the legal system, and thus there are expressed vaguely. As the plan does not specify what condition it tries to achieve, there is no way of assessing the outcome. Legal issue may be one of the bottlenecks in establishing such concrete conservation targets in our country, but another reason would be that the wildlife research itself is unfortunately lagging behind.

I am looking forward to hearing from the speakers today their opinions regarding these issues. I am also hoping to hear from Dr. Julian Hughes and Dr. Peter Schei how these issues are dealt with in other countries. And finally, it is my wish that this session lays a part of the groundwork for the COP 10 which will be held in Nagoya in 2010.

Thank you very much.