Japan: Saving species in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots

Japan is one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, places where an exceptional number of unique species are surviving under the threat of extinction. It’s a responsibility that Japan is rising to.

Green, white, and wet: Japan’s broad range of climates support a very unique range of biodiversity.

Photograph by Shutterstock
Published 3 Dec 2021, 11:08 GMT, Updated 17 Dec 2021, 14:26 GMT

The morning sun catches the outstretched wings of a toki, the light turning them a translucent peach pink as the elegant bird circles to land in the shallow waters of a paddy field. It is a majestic sight that many on the Japanese island of Sado believed had been lost forever. The Japanese crested ibis—the toki in Japanese—left the skies over Japan in 1981 as its food sources declined. The loss of this symbolic bird was for some an urgent call to action that humankind needed to do more to preserve the many and wonderful species we share the planet with. The toki’s disappearance occurred barely a year after the concept of biological diversity was introduced to science, and the world began to learn that biodiversity is essential to the health of ecosystems and the planet as a whole: we can’t afford to lose a single species.

Biodiversity is the vast and wonderful array of all living things on earth—from bacteria to birds, fungi to fish, plants to people. It’s estimated that there may be nine million species on the planet, so with little more than one million species currently described by science, we still have a lot to learn. What we are learning with increasing urgency is that life interacts in complex ways, creating a fragile balance where the loss of even one species can have catastrophic consequences for many more—including humans. And today, extinctions are occurring at the fastest rate since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

Species loss is an issue as emotional and important as climate change, and one that COP15 has laid out ambitious plans to resolve. Under the Convention of Biological Diversity, COP15 is working to bring all countries together with specific goals aimed at creating a nature-positive world by 2030. These goals recognize the impact human activity has on biodiversity: development, urbanization, pollution, disease, and climate change are all weakening the tree of life. Nowhere is this more critical than in the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots as identified by Conservation International—places that are both exceptionally rich in irreplaceable endemic species and also deeply threatened by human activity. Conserving these hotspots could have an enormous impact on safeguarding global biodiversity—and amongst them is Japan.

Japan’s rugged green landscape was forged from the region’s violent tectonic activity, its 6,852 islands were wrenched from continental Asia around 15 million years ago. Here, life evolved largely in isolation and adapted to a broad range of climates: Honshu’s mountains are among the snowiest areas on earth, the country’s Pacific region is remarkably dry, but the southern tip of Kyushu is one of the wettest places on the planet. This complexity has contributed to Japan’s unique biodiversity: about a third of its plants, half its mammals, nearly half its reptiles, and almost all its amphibians are found nowhere else on earth. Their loss would be irreplaceable; preserving them is something Japan takes very seriously.

Typical of this precious biodiversity is the amami rabbit. With its bulky body, dark brown fur, short ears, and small eyes, it looks like a very fat rat until you see it move, hopping awkwardly through the leaf litter in the same way as a hare would. Indeed, it is one of the oldest surviving rabbit species, a living fossil once prevalent on mainland Asia and now found only in the forests of two small islands: Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima. Here they form part of an exceptional biodiversity that has earned the islands UNESCO world heritage status. But the fate of the amami rabbit has been hanging in the balance.

The 20th century saw invasive alien species introduced to Amami-Oshima. These included dogs, cats, and most notably mongooses who were released to hunt poisonous snakes but instead hunted easier endemic prey that included the amami rabbit. One of COP15’s goals is to reduce the impact of invasive alien species, and actions taken on Amami-Oshima have achieved this. Since 2000, traps placed in the woods have steadily reduced the mongoose population and the numbers of amami rabbits seems to have stabilized at a higher level.  With the mongooses under control the hope is that this endangered rabbit will thrive.  

The amami rabbit, an ancient species endemic to Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima islands.

Photograph by Yosuke Kashiwakura

On Sado Island, a flash of pink and white amidst the green of a flooded paddy field signals a toki foraging for food. Its head bobs and its long black beak stabs at an insect beneath the water’s surface. But this wasn’t always possible. The use of pesticides and the draining of rice paddies after harvest saw the toki lose its primary hunting ground and main source of food. As a result, the toki population diminished and ultimately disappeared from Japan. Across the world, pesticides are used to preserve crops, but they can also devastate ecosystems and the species that inhabit them. The current draft of the goals to be adopted at COP15 is calling for a two-thirds reduction in pesticide use and a halving of nutrients lost to the environment. It is a commitment that rice farmers on Sado have already taken to heart in their efforts to bring back the toki.

Left: Top:

An endangered Japanese crested ibis or “toki” re-integrated with humans in a traditional “satoyama” socio-ecological system on Japan’s Sado Island.

Right: Bottom:

Terraced rice fields in the Iwakubi region of Sado island: A now-iconic satoyama landscape that incorporates human activity and rare species like the ibis in a balanced ecosystem. The area is recognized as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).

Photograph by Fumie Oyama(Left)(Top)
Photograph by Toru Hanai(Right)(Bottom)

With support from the Satoyama Initiative, a global effort introduced by the Japanese Government to promote harmony between humans and ecosystems, farmers on Sado were encouraged to make positive changes. Rice farmers agreed to reduce pesticides and fertilizers, and to keep their paddy fields flooded to build up stocks of insects and amphibians eaten by toki. Following a breeding program using the few toki given from China, the birds were released on Sado in 2008. Today, there are some 450 tokis on Sado.

Japan’s Sado, Amami-Oshima, and Tokunoshima islands all host exceptional biodiversity.

Illustrated by Nanako Nishihori ElephantStone Co.,Ltd.

Bringing species like the toki and amami rabbit back from the brink of extinction is a vital step in preserving global biodiversity. Vigorous action, like that taken in Japan, is what COP15 is calling for and what the world needs to stay balanced and healthy. For people and planet to co-exist in harmony is COP15’s crucial goal, and it will rely on governments, organizations, communities, and individuals to make it happen. For the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the clock is ticking but in Japan the toki and amami rabbit are proof of what can be achieved.

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