Is the tiny ibis on Japan’s endangered list on its way out?

Written by By Ed Schipul, CNN

On a quiet Nanjo, Japan, there stands a 100-year-old monument: a glistening bronze obelisk carved into the side of a mountain.

The ibis, Japan’s national bird, is depicted on it, suspended in mid-air. Centuries later, the massive marble figure holds its breath as it saunters into view, illuminated by the sun.

Some now wonder if the best view of the ibis might lie outside its spiritual birthplace.

After five years of protests from nearby residents over waste management, it seems the ibis might finally be going the way of the dodo. But that’s not the only aspect of the ibis’ fate that’s up in the air.

‘This plastic bag alternative has to save the ibis’

While the ibis lives on in Nara City’s closely-watch historical district, kaiju, its number dwindles elsewhere.

More than 3,000 white ibis were counted on one forested mountain range in Nara in 1968. Today, just 1,500 remain, according to the Nara Prefectural Nature Bureau

A mark from one of the few times the ibis was taken off the endangered list, in 2001. Credit: YOU SEX TASK/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last five years, it’s been a struggle to contain the annual nuisance, with residents complaining that crops fall off their rooftops, piles of garbage and litter dot the forest, and ivy grows quickly. Residents who once enjoyed their quiet way of life are starting to leave the country.

“Young people don’t come to see the ibis anymore, because there is simply too much waste,” says Kunio Ono, co-chair of Nara Prefectural Nature Council. “Visitors don’t enjoy seeing the ibis anyway, and they no longer know what the ibis is.”

This winter, the city government announced it would be converting 10 local parks into facilities for people’s dog walking. They’ll also build an incinerator as a way to reach an ecological target of reducing waste 70% by 2030.

The city would also keep the women’s ancient menstrual towels from its restrooms, and bottle and yogurt bottles from its station stations.

Nara Prefectural Government officials say the garbage management plan is their last chance to save the ibis. Credit: Anja Gruber/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

But the plan hasn’t been popular.

“What they are doing to the local flower crops by burning toilet ornaments is their own problem, and doesn’t concern me,” says Nara resident Yabuki Uchino. “I have no feelings about them using the ibis as an excuse to accommodate their personal interests.”

Grassland forests are a haven for local wildlife. Credit: APEX/APEX/PA Images via Getty Images

In a country where economic growth has crushed traditions and has led to widespread resentment of Japan’s metropolitan status, many citizens feel the most Japanese are anywhere the ibis exists.

“I think that in this country people no longer feel the need to preserve a national animal in their home country,” says Tatsuhiko Toshima, a researcher at Yonsei University. “If this habited bird is gone, Japan’s nationalism and national identity will inevitably suffer.”

He added: “In any case, the cloudforest park of Nara city is one of the top protected areas in Japan, and it is one of the places where the public gives special care to it, and can’t see it without interfering with it.”

The ibis in the background of Nara’s iconic Teruokubo Castle. Credit: Kyodo News/Kyodo News via Getty Images

Environmentalists say the largest threats to the ibis aren’t from incinerators, but from a land-use system that is already too urban and makes it difficult for animals to find a safe haven.

According to Toshima, a typical visitor to a forest in Japan might see wildlife in forests over which they have no control.

“Here in Nara, the people are all pulling the ivy, that’s why the ibis is disappearing,” he says. “People who live near this endangered animal have the idea that this ibis has to be kept away.”

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