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Japan rescues the red-crowned crane. Can they survive without humans?

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Japan rescues the red-crowned crane. Can they survive without humans?

Kushiro, Japan – The dance of the red-crowned crane began, an impromptu pas de deux.

The pair approached each other with a bow. He went back and forth flying in the air and returning to earth with the natural grace of a parachute. In a dramatic flourish, he spread his pristine white and jet-black feathers wide and bent his beak to the arc of the blue sky above.

As this beautiful courtship ritual unfolds, Kazuhiko Yamazaki, a vegetable farmer, drives a big red tractor across a snow-covered field on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. From a green swirling funnel he delivered about 40 pounds of corn to more than 50 red-crowned cranes, a bird revered in Japan as a symbol of loyalty and longevity.

More than half a century ago, when Mr. Yamazaki’s grandfather began sprinkling corn kernels from a metal bucket in the same field, there were only three dozen red-crowned cranes left across Japan. But thanks to a decades-long effort led by local patrons and subsidized by the Japanese government, the number of red-crowned cranes in Mr. Yamazaki’s town of Kushiro has grown to nearly 1,900.

Last year, the bird – which appeared on the 1,000-yen note for nearly a quarter century, serves as the logo of Japan Airlines and regularly appears in artistic scrolls and New Year’s greeting cards – was called ” was reclassified from “Vulnerable” to “Vulnerable”. by a worldwide conservation group. The new designation indicates that the cranes are no longer at imminent risk of extinction.

Some ornithologists question whether the species can be declared protected, given that its natural population in China is still deeply endangered and the Japanese population is almost entirely dependent on human food. Across Asia, climate change is depleting the wetlands where storks find food, nest and raise their young.

Scientists worry that a disease outbreak in Kushiro could wipe out huge numbers of cranes in the area. A managed plan to reduce artificial feeding has led many birds to local farms, in some cases wreaking havoc on the livestock food supply and prompting other communities to host large numbers of cranes.

“We have been exceedingly successful in some ways,” said Osamu Harada, chief ranger of a crane sanctuary in Tsurui, a village in the Kushiro region where a branch of the Wild Bird Society of Japan feeds hundreds of storks twice a day.

“Our first phase of conservation was only to increase the numbers,” said Mr. Harda. “But the second step is to think about how we can help them live on their own in nature.”

Kushiro residents have a selfish reason to preserve the cranes: they are quite a tourist attraction. Before the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of visitors traveled to Hokkaido to view and photograph birds from Asia, Europe and the rest of the United States.

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Even as Japan’s borders are still closed to international tourists, a recent meal attracted domestic bird watchers to Tsurui Sanctuary. Steering cameras equipped with giant telephoto lenses, they provided a soundtrack of rapid-fire shutter clicks as snow fell silently around the dancing cranes.

Masahiro Wada, 66, a third-generation tavern owner and photographic tour guide, recently opened a gallery that houses sculpted prints of his own crane paintings. Walls, some cost close to $1,200.

Records show that red-crowned cranes – named for the discs of red skin that glow over the heads of adult birds – were plentiful throughout Japan during the Edo period from the 17th to the 19th centuries. In that era, cranes were kept as pets – as well as prepared as culinary delicacies – for the shoguns who ruled the realm.

During the late 19th century, commoners began to aggressively hunt the red-crowned crane, and in the 20th century, construction and agriculture eroded their wetland habitats. By the 1920s, there were fears that the cranes were extinct, until a handful were discovered in Kushiro, barely surviving in a large swamp.

The Japanese government began passing laws that prohibited the hunting and breeding of red-crowned cranes and restricted construction in areas. The Ministry of Culture designated the birds a natural monument in 1935.

Sadajiro Yamazaki, Mr. Yamazaki’s grandfather, was the first local resident, who originally purposefully fed the red-crowned stork after some munching on corn for his dairy cows. A community effort to save cranes gained momentum in 1952, when students of an elementary school in Tsurui began sprinkling corn next to a playground every morning, a ritual that continues to this day.

By the early 1980s, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment was funding local groups that regularly provided food, and the Hokkaido government was offering subsidies to individual landowners.

For Sayoko Takahashi, 75, birds have become an indelible part of daily life after 25 years of backyard feeding with her husband. Dozens of cranes arrive every afternoon to wait for Ms. Takahashi as she pulls children’s snow sleds with two large buckets of corn.

Sometimes, Crane stays outside the house, peeking into the picture window in her living room—specifically, she’s reassuring as she plays music by torchbearer Japanese ballad singers. “I joke that I can’t go anywhere because of them,” she said. “But if they don’t come, I worry.”

She worries that no one will take care of her after she and her husband, who had a stroke last year, are gone. None of his three adult daughters have shown interest.

Experts are working to make sure the cranes survive any danger, including an outbreak of avian flu. The zoo and sanctuary in Kushiro keeps about 35 rescued cranes in captivity – some that spend their days moving back and forth in small cells – in case an artificial breeding program is needed to replenish the population. Researchers have frozen the corpses and organs of dead storks to study and preserve their DNA.

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However, the biggest focus is a plan to move cranes away from organized food and to disperse them toward more natural sources of food in swamps and rivers in Hokkaido – a process that officials say could take a decade.

“This is the No. 1 challenge,” said Kunikazu Momose, president of the Red-Crown Crane Conservancy in Hokkaido. “We have to train these storks to become more wild.”

In 2015, the Ministry of the Environment began reducing the amount of daily food consumed. Cranes then invaded local farms, helping themselves with corn fodder for dairy cows or beef cattle.

Last year, Arata Oikawa, a dairy farmer in Tsurui, dumped 300 tons of corn silage at a replacement cost of 10 million yen, or about $85,000, after dozens of red-crowned cranes pierced the tarps covering the feed and its Cause. to rot

“They are beautiful birds,” said Mr. Oikawa, 47, “but when I think of them in relation to my work, I don’t like them that much.”

Some local farmers have learned to live with their avian neighbors, but other communities are wary of attracting too many cranes.

In Naganuma, a town in western Hokkaido where cranes began to appear a few years ago, officials and farmers say they want to avoid a large influx of birds. “Our hope is not too many of them to come to the area,” said local society director Yoshikazu Kato, who is aiming to “bring back” the red-crowned crane.

Tamizo Nakamoto, 75, who moved with his wife, 75-year-old Akiko, to the Kushiro area from Osaka nearly three decades ago, said that “cranes are the worst thing humans do to the environment.”

The couple have developed a private crane sanctuary on their 25 acres, digging wells to create ponds and spending half their pension on corn and frozen smelt to feed three crane couples who return daily year after year. and produce 60 chicks.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Nakamoto took a metal pot filled with scent into a pond in front of the couple’s modest home. Seeing a crane couple, he began to wave his arms. One of the cranes, flapping its wings, reciprocated.

For a moment it was as if the man and the bird were dancing with each other.

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