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The elderly people of Yangxian County regard crested ibises as a symbol of good luck. Not only is the red color on their crests considered auspicious in Chinese culture, but they also, like cranes, are known because of their long lives as a symbol of longevity. The people of this county, located in Hanzhong, a city in Shaanxi Province, also found these birds, paired for life, loyal in love. If something happens to a crested ibis, its partner will choose to die alone rather than pairing again.
For over 60 million years, this species flourished across East Asia. However, widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers, as well as hunting and habitat loss, has led these elegant birds toward extinction. “The older generation says crested ibises weren’t that rare in the 1950s, but I very rarely saw them as a child,” 56-year-old Yangxian resident, Liu Yi told Beijing Review.
The crested ibis was believed to be extinct until their rediscovery in Yangxian, which renewed hopes for the species’ survival. Embraced by mountains and the Hanjiang River, Yangxian’s sheltered wetlands had provided the perfect natural haven for the crested ibis and, after a three-year search for a surviving wild population, Chinese scientists found seven birds living in the county in 1981.
“Crested ibises are picky about their environment,” Liu said. “In the place where they were found, near the Qinling Mountains, farmers still maintained traditional agricultural practices, leaving the air and water pristine.”
Liu first saw the rediscovered population in 1989, when he was serving as a civil servant in Yangxian. The encounter marked the beginning of a lifetime commitment to the species. “One day I found some birds flocking together on a hillside and making strange calls. I had never heard such a cacophony. The elderly residents told me they were crested ibises.”
One year later a survey of the ibises was conducted in the county and Liu volunteered to participate in a protection program launched by the county government. Some warned him about the tough work, full of boring routines day in and day out, but Liu was unperturbed. He joined a three-month program but, at its conclusion, chose to remain in his position. Today he serves as the director of the Breeding Department at the Crested Ibis Artificial Breeding Center in Hanzhong.
Liu said his 31-year career in the artificial breeding and protection of these rare birds has been the most rewarding part of his life. And thanks to the devoted conservation efforts of Liu and those like him, the number of crested ibises in the world has grown to more than 7,000 over the past 40 years. “I hope we’ll see crested ibises fly freely again in all the places they once lived,” he said.
A miraculous comeback
When the protection program began in 1990, volunteers like Liu were tasked with following the birds every day. Conditions were so rough at the time that volunteers needed to follow the birds over large distances either on bicycles or on foot along the area’s muddy roads and tracks.
Working in groups, the volunteers would set out from known roosting sites, following the birds and reporting where they were headed to colleagues via two-way radio. “As their population was smaller back then, they would always move in a group,” Liu said. Volunteers hid in the fields and recorded nearly everything they observed, including how far the birds flew, what they ate and when they would move on to a new location.
Liu and his colleagues still carry out this daily routine today. However, the number of crested ibises has increased, so too have their home range and the volume of work involved in monitoring them. Liu and his team have turned to new technologies, including GPS. “We now select a few of the more vigorous birds, attach GPS trackers to their backs, and use them to record their flock’s daily movements,” he said.
Liu participated in an artificial breeding program for crested ibises after a specialized ecological park was created for the birds in 1992. The local government invited He Baoqing, a specialist from Shanghai Zoo, to provide technical guidance. The knowledge they gained also helped them incubate crested ibis eggs that were abandoned due to bad weather in 1993. Only one chick survived, but two years later, a captive-bred bird laid a clutch of eggs, leading to three chicks being bred at the park.
“Artificial incubation plays only a small role in the conservation of the crested ibis, as most of the population lives in the wild,” Liu said. “We match the environment at the park as closely as possible to the natural environment, so that captive-bred birds can practice natural behaviors such as socializing and finding food. This means that when captive numbers are high enough, we can release birds to increase populations in the wild.”
Despite these preparations, Liu still worries about the birds from the moment they are released. “I still worry about how well they will adapt to the natural environment, and whether they can avoid attack by predators,” he said. “I also wonder whether I’ll ever see them again after they fly into the blue sky.”
Returning the favor
While it has had little impact on the species to date, Liu Yinzeng, the ornithologist who rediscovered the crested ibises in 1981, believes inbreeding will present major challenges in the conservation of the species. “Scientists still worry that inbreeding will lead to negative consequences, such as a lack of genetic diversity,” Liu Yinzeng said, speaking to China Daily. Chinese scientists are addressing the issue, bringing together birds from different locations in order to minimize inbreeding.
“We breed crested ibises here in Yangxian, as well as in other places such as the Beijing Zoo,” the 86-year-old scientist said.
Both captive and wild populations of crested ibises are increasing every year, so the priority for their protection has now shifted from increasing the population to protecting the birds’ habitats. “The birds like to nest in the tall trees near residents’ homes, and to find food in surrounding rice paddies. Once the natural environment improves, the birds begin reproducing naturally, which leads to a rebounding of the population,” Liu Yi explained.
For this reason, success in increasing the population of crested ibises should also be attributed to the harmonious relationship between the birds and their human neighbors. Following regulations, local residents do not hunt or fell trees in crested ibis habitats, and do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides in areas where the birds hunt for food. The wellbeing of the birds was also a major consideration in the construction of a local railway, with protective nets installed on both sides of the tracks in areas where the railway runs close to ibis habitats.
The measures taken by local residents have also contributed to the economic development of Yangxian, with organic and pollution-free products welcomed by the market bringing in increased income for villagers. The crested ibis is also expected to become a major draw for visitors.
Today, the crested ibis has also become a bridge of friendship between China and other countries. In the 1990s, China gave five crested ibises to Japan to help it rebuild its population. Deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture, crested ibises became extinct in the wild in Japan in 2003, before being reintroduced from captive populations in 2008.
China’s gift was followed by Japanese support for the protection of the species’ habitats in China through both governmental and non-governmental projects.
“We hope there will be such exchanges in the future,” Yoshinori Kaneko, a vet at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center, told Xinhua News Agency.
“Conservation of the crested ibis has been successful in China, and we are willing to share our successes with the world,” Liu Yi said.
Source: Beijing Review, No 25, 2021-06-21