With its 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.
How the fairy bird came back from the brink of extinction
But five decades ago the crested ibis’s future looked bleak.
At one point, the entire species around the world was thought to be down to the last six birds.
But thanks to the efforts of dogged Chinese conservationists, it has made a remarkable comeback.
Some 50 years after it was on the brink of extinction, the number of crested ibises in China reached more than 2,600 in January this year.
The species is still endangered, but its revival is a conservation success story.
Back in the 1960s, things seemed hopeless. The last crested ibis to be 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 in a last-ditch attempt to save the species.
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’ fate.
In 1975, he headed a team setting out on a mission 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 the fairy bird, but they were always that the creatures had been killed through hunting or the loss of habitat.
But in May 1981, a breakthrough came. The team finally found two adult crested ibises in Yang county in the northwestern province of Shaanxi.
The good news did not stop there. A week later, two more adult crested ibises with three chicks were found nesting in a tree at a farm in the same area.
“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 in an article for the science academy's website.
The birds had moved from lower areas where food was more abundant to more remote mountains at an altitude of 4,000 feet, making it a struggle for them to survive.
Steps were taken to ensure the birds were not disturbed, with people stationed near the tree to prevent attacks from other animals. Farmers were also banned from using fertilizers and pesticides at the nearby farm for fear of poisoning the birds. A ban was also placed on shooting guns in case the shots scared the birds away.
Eventually, the two adults left the nest with two strong chicks, abandoning the weak one behind. Liu’s team rescued it and sent it to Beijing Zoo, where it was reared before being sent to Japan in 1984.
The area the birds were initially found become the site of the first crested ibis conservation station in China, and 19 chicks were born in the region between 1981 and 1990.
A breeding program for the birds was later started in the ’90s, and the crested ibis began to nest in Zhejiang, Sichuan and Henan provinces, expanding the species’ habitat from just three square miles to 8,700 square miles across the country.
However, despite the huge strides in safeguarding the numbers of these 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, said that an unusually high percentage of crested ibises are born with defects, due to the fact that the whole population can be traced back to the four adult birds 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 clench 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% of the crested ibises born through the breeding program were born with obvious birth defects. “In spite of the increased numbers, the risk of extinction remains high for the 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.
His team examines genetic data before breeding birds at the conservation center 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 center between 2008 and this year.
“Quantity is very important, but it’s the quality that matters most for endangered species,” said Fang.
The crested ibis are among several animal species successfully saved from extinction though conservation efforts in China, including the giant panda and the Chinese alligator.