Crested ibis diplomacy: How a nearly extinct bird brought China and Japan together

This year marks 20 years since the native-born Japanese crested ibis was declared extinct in Japan. Commentator Chen Hongbin looks at a dance item inspired by the crested ibis and examines a chapter of diplomacy between China and Japan, and how it brought them together in a common effort to preserve the rare bird.
The crested ibis is hailed as the “oriental gem”. (iStock)
The crested ibis is hailed as the “oriental gem”. (iStock)

Among the dance items at the 2021 CCTV Spring Festival Gala, “Crested Ibis” (《朱鹮》) was undoubtedly the most popular. Since its premiere, it has been well received both in China and overseas, as it profoundly illustrates the story of humans’ protection of rare animals.

The Expo 2010 Shanghai China was exciting, successful and memorable, with the Japan Pavilion being one of the most popular pavilions because of its high-definition video performance telling the story of the crested ibis.

Global concern for a rare bird

Also hailed as the “oriental gem”, the crested ibis is a rare, wading bird. Like the giant panda, the crested ibis is a relict species that was once commonly found across East Asia. This “ancient bird”, believed to have existed for over 60 million years, longer than the history of humanity, almost went extinct about 30 years ago.

In 1963, the crested ibis was declared extinct in the former Soviet Union. In 1975, the last crested ibis vanished from the Korean peninsula. The crested ibis’s disappearance from its main countries of habitat raised global concern.

... in May 1981, their efforts finally paid off — after spending three years trekking over 50,000 kilometres, they found seven wild crested ibises in Yang county in Shaanxi province, which was a major find.

The crested ibis. (Photo: Danielinblue/Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
The crested ibis. (Photo: Danielinblue/Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Given how few crested ibises there were at the time, in 1960 it was declared an internationally protected bird on the initiative of the International Conference on Bird Preservation. On 30 November 1994, it was classified as “critically endangered” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

At the time, China — vast and immense — was the only country that had not been “combed”, and so the world, especially Japan, was focused on it. Out of desperation, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment formally requested China to search for wild crested ibises in the country in 1972.

Are there still crested ibises in China?

In September 1978, the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences was appointed by the State Council to form an expert team in search of wild crested ibises in China. And in May 1981, their efforts finally paid off — after spending three years trekking over 50,000 kilometres, they found seven wild crested ibises in Yang county in Shaanxi province, which was a major find.

Thereafter, China’s forestry department strived to protect this rare bird species. In fact, back in 1979, the crested ibis was already listed as a first-class protected wild animal under China’s Wild Animal Conservation Law issued by the State Council.

The crested ibis, with its snow white feathers, red head, long black beak and slender legs, has always been regarded as a sacred bird by the Japanese royal family. 

The "Crested Ibis" dance item during the 2021 CCTV Spring Festival Gala. (YouTube/CCTV春晚)
The "Crested Ibis" dance item during the 2021 CCTV Spring Festival Gala was one of the most popular performances that night. (YouTube/CCTV春晚)

The crested ibis, with its snow white feathers, red head, long black beak and slender legs, has always been regarded as a sacred bird by the Japanese royal family. Its scientific name is Nipponia Nippon (which directly translates as “Japan’s Japan”). Naming the crested ibis after Japan shows how important the bird is to the country.

Significance of the crested ibis in Japan

The history book Nihongi (The Chronicles of Japan) noted that the crested ibis represents Japan. It is a sacred and irreplaceable bird in Japanese culture, with a history that can be traced back to the Nara period over 1,000 years ago. The feathers of the crested ibis were also offered in some important royal rituals. Until today, the colour of the crested ibis remains a favourite among the Japanese and is even used as the main colour of the imperial palace and on the kimonos of court ladies. There are also many traditional Japanese songs in praise of the bird.

In 1952, Japan declared the crested ibis a “special natural monument”. In conjunction with the declaration of the crested ibis as an internationally protected bird in 1960, Japan even issued commemorative stamps depicting the bird. To save the species from extinction, Japan captured all the last six wild crested ibises in 1981 and raised them in captivity, while announcing to the world that Japan’s wild crested ibises were now extinct.

...in 2003 the Japanese government resignedly announced to the world the tragic news that “Japan’s crested ibis is extinct”.

A crested ibis perched on a tree. (iStock)
A crested ibis perched on a tree. (iStock)

The Japanese see the crested ibis as “divine”, yet this rare species was on the verge of becoming extinct in Japan. While bird conservationists in Japan rounded up the remaining few for conservation, it was clearly too late, as the remaining crested ibis in Japan are no longer fertile, and are unable to reproduce. Thus, when the crested ibis was discovered in China, Japan fervently hoped that the crested ibises of the two countries would mate and breed future generations.

The Chinese government loaned three birds (one female, two males) to Japan in 1985 and 1994, to help with breeding, but this ultimately failed. Japan’s crested ibises were too old, and while the crested ibises from China were young and fit, the pairings did not produce the desired results. When the “grandpa” and “grandma” birds finally passed away, in 2003 the Japanese government resignedly announced to the world the tragic news that “Japan’s crested ibis is extinct”.

Crested ibis diplomacy

To better protect the crested ibis, in 1985, both countries signed a joint plan to protect the crested ibis. In 1998, before then-President Jiang Zemin visited Japan, I suggested that Japan be gifted a pair of crested ibis. I was heartened to learn that my suggestion was taken up, and during that visit, it was announced that the first pair of crested ibis would be sent to Japan the following spring. All of Japan celebrated this announcement, and even got its people to come up with names for the birds; thus was born “crested ibis diplomacy” between China and Japan. 

Their numbers, both captive and wild, are now estimated to be over 500.

The historic Bund sits in the foreground with the Lujiazui financial district on the other side of the Huangpu river in Shanghai, China, on 19 September 2010. (Shen Qilai/Bloomberg)
The historic Bund sits in the foreground with the Lujiazui financial district on the other side of the Huangpu river in Shanghai, China, on 19 September 2010. (Shen Qilai/Bloomberg)

In October 2000, when then-Premier Zhu Rongji visited Japan, another gift of a female crested ibis was given, to increase the success rate of crested ibis mating in Japan. And when Premier Wen Jiabao visited Japan in April 2007, another pair of birds were gifted. Chinese experts on the crested ibis at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center gave scientific guidance and imparted their knowledge on the crested ibis gifted to Japan, helping them to gradually get used to their new artificial breeding environment. The birds did not disappoint, mating and breeding new generations of little crested ibis in Japan. Over years of effort, so far, nearly 400 crested ibises have been bred.

In 2008, Japan began releasing crested ibis into the wild; as of end 2014, a total of 142 had been released. In 2012, it was confirmed that the crested ibises released into the wild had successfully reproduced, making the release a success. Their numbers, both captive and wild, are now estimated to be over 500.

Genesis of a dance

At the 2010 Shanghai World Expo — the first to be held in China — it was clear that great thought had gone into the decision to use the crested ibis as a theme for the Japan Pavilion. The emotional and riveting story resonated deeply with visitors, making the Japan Pavilion a big hit.

After seeing the crested ibis at the Japan Pavilion, Chen Feihua, the director of Shanghai Dance Theatre, and the other team members were so moved by the bird's discovery and challenging conservation process that they decided to adapt it into a dance drama. Over four years were spent on the creative process, and the choreographers even visited the conservation areas on Sado Island in Japan to gather inspiration for the dance.

The China Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. (SPH Media)
The China Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. (SPH Media)

The “Crested Ibises” crew headed to Japan in October 2014, and held four performances in Tokyo and other areas, counting Japanese royalty and key political figures among the audience. It has since been performed more than 300 times — in Japan, the US, and all over China. 

Amid a low point in China-Japan relations, for a Chinese dance to be performed multiple times in Japan, putting up nearly 60 performances that drew in around 120,000 audiences, and to be so well received, is clear evidence for how art can transcend borders. Of course, such a theme is also uniquely attractive to a Japanese audience.

Hopefully, moving forward, there will be even more works of art that spur understanding among people from various countries.

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