A mayor inspired by children, farmers reverting to more traditional farming methods and the support of a community results in the return of a once extinct species to Toyooka.
“The use of chemicals had a physical impact on the storks. Some of them were infertile and those that were able to breed laid eggs that were not viable due to shell-thinning caused by the pesticide DDT.”
Mr Muneharu Nakagai; Mayor of Toyooka
There are many excellent conservation projects worldwide run by NGOs, conservation organisations, communities and individuals. Whilst attending the UK BirdFair recently, I stumbled over one such project that really caught my attention. An inspirational project that brought together school children, the larger community, farmers and local government and resulted in the reintroduction of an endangered species.
The species in question was the Oriental White Stork. The place, Toyooka, a city with 82,000 inhabitants situated on the northern coast of Japan. Already a popular tourist attraction due to its ski slopes and the Kinosaki hot springs and known for manufacturing high-quality bags, Toyooka is, once again, a city where this enigmatic stork can be seen.
Following his presentation at the Bird Fair’s ‘Wild Zone’, I was invited to interview Toyooka’s Mayor, Mr Muneharu Nakagai, about the reintroduction which he is clearly very passionate about. I started by asking how and when the project began.
Mr Nakagai: “The stork was once seen regularly in Toyooka, but became extinct in Japan in 1971. The decline started following World War Two (WW2). At that time, Japan had a serious economic crisis which was addressed through intensive farming. The result of this was a change in agricultural practices which seriously degraded the bird’s habitat. The problem had been recognised and in 1965, the first captive breeding programme was set up in Toyooka.”
The agricultural changes, referred to above, included land drainage, deforestation and the rigorous use of agricultural chemicals, including DDT.
Mr Nakagai: “The use of chemicals had a physical impact on the storks. Some of them were infertile and those that were able to breed laid eggs that were not viable due to shell-thinning caused by the pesticide DDT. It was a worrying time as the birds used as part of the breeding programme did not breed successfully until 1989. Fortunately, the effect of the poisons the birds had accumulated in their bodies lessened over time. In addition, Russia donated six young birds to the project in 1985 which helped to refresh the gene pool. The captive birds have continued to fledge young every year since that first chick in 1989 and have produced over 300 chicks to date.”
“This very resourceful young girl wanted to know why the typhoon had caused so much destruction and what lessons could be learned from the event.”
Mr Muneharu Nakagai; Mayor of Toyooka
Unlike the European White Stork, the Oriental species does not nest communally and pairs can be very aggressive towards one another. This caused additional challenges for the captive breeding team.
Mr Nakagai: “Storks pair for life and are highly territorial. A strategy had to be devised to get the storks to form pairs whilst they were still too young to establish a territory. This was achieved by raising five or six fledged storks together in the same pen. The young storks imported from Russia were vital to the plan. As pairs formed they were removed to another pen where they could build a bond that would continue through to adulthood. Fortunately, this plan worked.”
Whilst the breeding program was having some success, the issue of the habitat being unsuitable for the storks still needed to be addressed. I asked the mayor how he got involved in the project, how the environment was transformed and how he won the hearts and minds of the local farmers who rely on the land for their livelihood.
Mr Nakagai: “I first met with Matsushima the stork caretaker in 1991. He told me he had been dreaming of the storks flying free for 25 years. We discussed how this could be done and how the habitat could be improved to sustain the released birds.
“Then, in October 2004, a typhoon struck Toyooka. It was devastating and destroyed the livelihood of many people. One of those affected was an 11-year old girl called Yuka Okada. Her home was destroyed by the typhoon and the family lost everything. This very resourceful young girl wanted to know why the typhoon had caused so much destruction and what lessons could be learned from the event.
“Yuka and some of her friends put a lot of thought into this and decided that restoring the rice paddies and changing back to traditional farming practices was the answer. They asked their teacher to arrange a meeting with me to discuss their ideas. I was more than happy to do so. Their solution was to revert to pre-WW2 farming practices, which meant, along with other measures, not using harmful chemicals. Not only would this provide flood defences, it would also improve the environment. This would be beneficial to the stork release project. Following further consultation, we decided to go ahead with the venture.
“When we discussed this with farmers, there was some anger and opposition as would be expected. The farmers had been encouraged to change how they farmed and also to use agri-chemicals to increase crops in order to meet economic demands. They were now being asked to abandon these methods and wanted a good reason why they should do so.
“It is a credit to everyone who took part in the project, the farmers and the children and demonstrated that we can live in harmony with nature. Yuka and her fellow students taught me that children can change the world.”
Mr Muneharu Nakagai; Mayor of Toyooka
“Our approach was to move forward one step at a time. First, we had to reassure the farmers that they were not being blamed for the destruction of the storks’ habitat. We then shared with them a promise that had been made to the storks that they would one day fly free again in the skies of Toyooka; in Japan promises are taken very seriously, not made frivolously and always kept. The farmers were told of the contribution they would be making to the conservation of an internationally endangered species and that this was something that they and Japan, could be proud of.
“Finally, and most importantly, they were assured that by improving the environment for storks they and their families would be living in healthier surroundings due to the removal of the chemicals that were having a detrimental impact on their health. This got us to the position where we could then address the economic outcome of the move to more traditional farming.
“Working with the farmers, we introduced ‘Stork-friendly Rice’. Both the control of pests and the fertilisation is provided by the storks and other wildlife inhabiting the paddies. There is therefore no need for chemicals, so the rice is truly organic. The rice was sold at a premium price but demand was high across Japan. The rice is now also exported to the United States, Singapore, Dubai and Australia and is served for school dinners across Japan
“Deservedly, the farmers are reaping the rewards from their actions and take great pride in their farms, crops and the positive impact they have had.”
So, the scene was set and in 2005 the first storks were released into the wild. The cities skies now play host to 141 storks. This is a significant population given there are thought to be less than 2,500 (source: BirdLife International) mature individuals internationally.
Mr Nakagai: “We now have breeding storks in our wetlands again. We are also advising and assisting other cities, both in Japan and in South Korea, with stork release projects. I dream that one day our storks will start pairing with those from South Korea. I have been Mayor of Toyooka for 18 years and the day we released the first storks was one of my proudest moments.”
The storks are not the only beneficiaries of the rejuvenated habitat. As well as providing a haven for over 280 species of birds, numbers of fish, frogs and insects in the region have also increased significantly.
Mr Nakagai: “Wildlife is thriving in Toyooka and the surrounding areas. It is a credit to everyone who took part in the project, the farmers and the children and demonstrated that we can live in harmony with nature. As I explained in ‘Living in harmony with stork and nature’, Ran Levy-Yamamori’s excellent film about the project, Yuka and her fellow students taught me that children can change the world.”
The Lower Maruyama River and the surrounding rice paddies in Toyooka city were designated a RAMSAR site in 2012. And the storks continue to prosper.
With thanks to Mr Nakagai (back-right), Ran Levy-Yamamori (front-left), Jade Nunez (front-right) and Yuka Fujii (not pictured) for their help in producing this article.
View the trailer (below) for Ran Levy-Yamamori’s excellent film about this inspirational project.
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Everyone can make miracles and change the world. Even children!KOUNOTORI is the story of Toyooka, a rural Japanese town, which was hit and flooded by an immense typhoon, causing great damage and despair. It was Yuka Okada, a brave and creative 11 years old girl, who came up with a simple idea, inspired an amazing sustainable process, which turned Toyooka into a prosperous paradise. In the process, they even succeeded to do the unbelievable, and to bring back to nature a rare species of stork called Kounotori, after dozens of years of extinction.KOUNOTORI proves in a moving and inspiring way that we should never lose hope.
Posted by Kounotori on Tuesday, December 19, 2017