A rare Japanese bird flutters near extinction

The fate of a rare Japanese bird species may depend on China. An internationally protected bird, the toki or Japanese crested ibis, may soon be extinct in Japan.

When a young female toki named Shiro died in April this year, the Japanese Environment Agency announced that ''three of them still remain alive.''

But many observers say it appears that Japan has failed to save the species.

The toki or nipponia nippon has been at the brink of extinction for a long time. Fifty years ago the species was thought to be extinct. But then a few tokis were found alive on Sado Shima, a small island in the Sea of Japan. Since then, the Japanese have taken special measures to protect the species.

The large white birds have a 11/2 foot wingspan and live mainly in lakes, ponds, or wetlands. They are reported to be high-strung, and protecting them has been difficult.

Under government protection, the total population reached 12 in 1972. But the following year four were killed by martens, a weasel-like mammal, and the toki's natural enemy. The population has been decreasing ever since.

In January, 1981, when the number declined to six, Japan's Environment Agency decided to bring all of them in from the wild and put them into cages under intensive protection. Since then, the breeding staff has lost three. The first one died in June of 1981 and the second in July of that year. Both were infected with a parasite.

In nature, the toki eat only living fish and shellfish. To prevent the birds from getting parasites, they tried to change from natural to artificial food consisting mainly of horse meat. After much patience, the breeding staff finally converted the tokis' eating habits and the parasite problem was solved.

Three birds still live at the island protection center. However, many experts consider the species already extinct since the two female birds do not appear to be able to breed.

''These three toki are very calm, almost lifeless,'' says Hiroki Chikatsuji, chief of the breeding staff.

''The protection center also has another similar bird, the black ibis. This species, threskiornis melanocephala, are much livelier than toki. . . .''

He also said that the toki population was too small for breeding. ''To breed one species, you certainly need some concrete (minimum) number. Twelve . . . means (breeding is) almost impossible.

''We could have caught all the birds when the population reached 12. At that time, we believed that being natural would be better. Who knows (now) which would have been better?''

Still, the breeding staff has not given up. They are trying, as one of their last resorts, artificial insemination.

Mr. Chikatsuji, who moved to the island 16 years ago for the sole purpose of breeding the birds, remains hopeful. Despite the overwhelming odds, he still encourages his staff to save the birds.

Mr. Chikatsuji has another last hope: China. Reportedly, there are 14 tokis there, all wild except one.

''Probably the best way is, if possible, to send our three to China and let them live together. The larger the population, the larger the possibility of survival.

''Needless to say,'' Mr. Chikatsuji continued, ''it is a highly political problem and I can't do anything for that. But, I still have hope.''

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