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China science

How China brought the crested ibis back from brink of extinction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 11:10pm

With red claws and face – plus a large, curved black beak and crest – the crested ibis is known as the beauty bird or fairy bird in China. 

They have existed for nearly 60 million years and were widespread in China, the Korean peninsula, Japan and Russia until the 1960s when the widespread use of pesticides and fertilisers, plus a loss of habitat, drove the birds to near extinction. 

At one point, the entire species around the world was thought to be down to the last six birds. 

Yet today, some five decades later, the number of crested ibis in China has reached more than 2,600 at the last count, the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reported this month. The species is still endangered, but its revival is a conservation success story in China.

Back in the 1960s, things seemed hopeless. 

The last crested ibis then spotted in the wild in China was recorded by an ornithologist in 1964. 

The species had disappeared in Russia the previous year and there were thought to be none of the birds living in the wild in North Korea by 1975. 

Faced with almost certain extinction, Japan put the last of its six wild crested ibises in captivity in 1981 as a last resort to save the species.

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However, Liu Yinzeng, then a researcher at the Zoology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, refused to accept what seemed to be the birds’ destiny. 

At 42, he headed a team setting out on a mission in 1975 to search for crested ibis in the wild in China. 

His team searched through mountainous areas in nine provinces over three years, showing slides and pictures to villagers for clues to the birds’ whereabouts, but to no avail. 

On several occasions they found people who had seen crested ibis, but were always told the birds had been killed through hunting or the loss of habitat.

But in May 1981, a breakthrough came. The team finally found two adult crested ibis in Yang county in Shaanxi province. 

The good news did not stop there. A week later, two other adult crested ibis with three chicks were found nesting in a tree at a farm in the same area, according to a series of articles published by Liu on the science academy’s website. 

“The three chicks looked weak and in low spirits. Clearly their parents could not feed them well. We were worried whether these chicks would grow,” Liu wrote.

The birds had moved from lower areas where food was more abundant to more remote mountains at an altitude of 1,200 metres, making it a struggle for them to survive, said Liu.

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Steps were taken to ensure the birds were not disturbed, with people stationed near the tree to prevent attacks by other animals. Farmers were also banned from using fertilisers and pesticide at the nearby farm for fear of poisoning the birds. A ban was also placed on shooting guns in case it scared the birds away.

Eventually, the two adults left the nest with the two strong chicks, with a weak one abandoned. Liu’s team rescued it and sent it to Beijing Zoo where it was safely reared. The chick grew and was sent to Japan in 1984, Liu said. 

The area where the birds were initially found become site of the first crested ibis conservation station in China and 19 chicks were born from 1981 until 1990. 

A breeding programme for the birds was later started in the ’90s and crested ibis began to nest in Zhejiang, Sichuan and Henan provinces, expanding the species’ habitat from just five square kilometres to 14,000 square kilometres across the country. 

However, despite the huge strides in safeguarding numbers of the birds, a leading conservationist warns they are still vulnerable because of the risks of inbreeding.

Fang Shengguo, professor at the College of Life Sciences at Zhejiang University, told the South China Morning Post the species has shown signs of a high percentage born with defects due to the fact that the whole population can be traced back to the four adult crested ibises found three decades ago. 

“Some were born with a deformity in the wings meaning they couldn’t fly. Some were born with cataracts. Some were born with problematic claws, meaning they couldn’t clinch and stand on trees,” said Fang. “It means they must sleep on the ground and the risk of attacks by other animals is much greater. All these are signs of population depression.”

About 10 per cent of the crested ibis born through the breeding programmer were born with obvious birth defects. “In spite of the increased numbers, the risk of extinction remains high for crested ibis,” he said. 

To lower such risks, Fang said genetic management and selection was required so only genetically superior birds would reproduce in the wild. 

“The whole population would be weak and could not adapt to the environment if they came from weak ancestors. Genetic management is needed for the species to stand a better chance and hopefully they will evolve stronger under the pressures of the wild,” Fang said. 

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His team examines genetic data before breeding birds at the conservation centre in Deqing county in Zhejiang province and only selects those genetically suited for life in the wild.

The work has produced clear results. 

Only two crested ibises have been born with birth defects from the 286 bred at the Zhejiang centre between 2008 and this year.

“Quantity is very important, but it’s the quality that matters most for endangered species,” said Fang.

crested ibis are among several animal species successfully saved from extinction though conservation efforts in China, including the giant panda, the Chinese alligator and the elk.