Remarkable Recovery: The Modern History of Japan’s Environment

Prized Visitors or Pests? Learning to Live with Japan’s Wild Geese


The number of white-fronted geese increased 33-fold in half a century, but farmers saw them as a pest. A pioneering initiative in their largest wintering ground, Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture, is helping geese and people to live side by side.

The Fruits of Conservation

As I noted in “The Flight of the Wild Geese,” the postwar era was a brutal time for the population of wild geese visiting Japan. Eventually, though, the efforts of conservation groups began to bear fruit. In 1971, the white-fronted goose and the bean goose were taken off the list of birds that could be hunted, and together with the brant they were designated as natural monuments, giving them the status of protected species. Even so, their problems were not over.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s, large numbers of geese died at Miyajimanuma, Hokkaidō. In general it is rare to find dead geese in the wild, but over 100 corpses were found in these incidents. The cause was the lead shot that had been used in the past for hunting and could still be found scattered around the marsh. Geese swallow small stones to aid digestion, but this habit had become fatal; shot swallowed by mistake was causing acute lead poisoning. To make matters worse, the bodies of geese that appeared to have died from pesticide poisoning were also found.

Around the country, there were calls to save the geese, and the efforts of citizen’s groups dedicated to protecting the birds’ habitat gained momentum. An annual survey of goose and duck populations carried out by the Forestry Agency, and later the Environment Agency and then the present-day Ministry of the Environment, showed that these efforts started to bear real fruit around 2005.

The survey is carried out every year in mid-January across the whole country simultaneously. In the first survey, carried out in 1970, there were just 5,790 white-fronted geese. This number grew to 20,000 by 1990, and to over 50,000 in 1997. The population cleared the 100,000 mark in 2002 and was more than twice that by 2014.

In January 2016, the forty-seventh survey was carried out. Some 4,000 volunteers took part in the operation, carried out at 9,000 sites across the country, successfully tallying 189,000 geese. Also, the number of staging grounds for migratory waterfowl, which had previously fallen to less than 25, was now in excess of 100. In less than a half-century, Japan had brought the white-fronted goose back from the brink of disaster to a 33-fold increase in population, an achievement that was lauded at international conservation conferences and other bird-related fora.

Coexistence with the Avian World

Japan is a small country crammed with a large human population, which creates numerous problems for the coexistence of people and animals. As an example, many goose species forage for food on farmland. This has earned them the wrath of farmers, who see them as crop-destroying pests.

A pioneering attempt to ensure harmony between people and white-fronted geese has been underway for some time at Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture. This is the country’s largest wintering ground, and the number of geese overwintering on the lake and its marsh has risen sharply with the recovery of the bird population. Their excreta caused a decline in the water quality, and the geese were responsible for damage to rice and other crops in the nearby farmland.

The government surveys show that while just 3,400 geese migrated to Izunuma in 1972, today nearly 100,000 birds overwinter there every year. This is mainly because Japan has designated Izunuma a special wildlife protection area, and it also comes under a number of other conservation frameworks.

However, as the number of white-fronted geese increased, so did the damage to the rice crops. In this paddy field zone, rice harvesting is from late September to mid or late October. Rice that is harvested by combine harvester is dried mechanically, but rice stalks dried the traditional way are hung up like washing on bamboo or wooden poles on the ridges between rice paddies, where they dry under the sun until early November.

And it is just at this time that the white-fronted geese arrive. They are normally content to peck at fallen grains of rice or chaff, but they will sometimes help themselves to the rice that has been hung up to dry. The aggrieved farmers became increasingly vociferous. Unhappy about conservation, some of them demanded to know which were more important—birds or people. There was stiff opposition from farmers when Izunuma became a designated Ramsar Site in 2005.

Kurechi Masayuki, president of the Japanese Association for Wild Geese Protection, studied how much damage geese actually do. He found that the amount of rice eaten by white-fronted geese amounted to no more than 0.5% of the total rice yield of the paddy fields. The town of Wakayanagi, which includes part of Izunuma, enacted a bylaw to compensate farmers for damage by birds in 1979. This was the first system in the country that paid farmers for damage caused by wildlife; similar bylaws were subsequently enacted in neighboring towns as well. The farmers were content with this system, and as the actual amounts of compensation were relatively small, the burden on public finances was not great.

Winter-Water Paddies

A new initiative to help birds and people live together was launched. This was known as fuyu mizu tanbo, or “winter-water paddies,” a rather unusual term that is now commonplace in areas where white-fronted geese migrate in winter. As the name suggests, it is a system of leaving paddy fields flooded throughout winter. After the harvest in fall, paddies are usually drained and the soil is allowed to dry until the next crop is planted the following year. However, geese like to rest in shallow marshes during the night and forage for food in paddy fields within a 10-kilometer radius during the day. They often nest in paddy fields as well. If the paddy fields are drained, the geese lose both their feeding grounds and their nesting sites.

Some 10 kilometers south of Izunuma is the marsh area of Kabukurinuma. It was here that the fuyu mizu tanbo project began in 1998, with the help of local farmers. The 150-hectare marsh ranks alongside Izunuma as a major wintering ground for geese and swans. The project was implemented by NPO Tambo, chaired by Iwabuchi Shigeki.

In 1993, cold weather caused tremendous damage to the rice crop in the area surrounding Kabukurinuma. To rebuild the local economy, the farming communities turned to organic farming methods that enhanced coexistence with the geese. Drainage ditches were closed off, increasing the size of the marsh several times over, and the paddy fields were left flooded during the winter months.

Fuyu mizu tanbo (“winter-water paddies”). (Photo by Kurechi Masayuki)

A plan to dig the marsh deeper and use it as a retention reservoir was put on hold in favor of goose conservation. Keen to exploit the potential of green tourism, farmers started to open centers to welcome visitors, restaurants, and accommodation facilities, while volunteers launched wildlife study courses, observation sessions, and hands-on learning experiences.

These efforts were very successful. At the start of the 1980s there had been no more than 2,000–3,000 migrant geese, but now around 80,000 fly in to Kabukurinuma every year. To date some 1,500 plant and animal species, including approximately 200 bird species, have been found in the area.

In recognition of its work, in 2007 NPO Tambo won the Environment Minister Prize in the ninth Japan Water Prizes for its “regeneration project using fuyu mizu tanbo, in which people live with the environment.”

Wildlife-Friendly Agriculture

Leaving the paddy fields filled with water led to a massive proliferation of microorganisms and bigger animals such as sludge worms, thus enriching the ecosystem. In return, the birds left behind their excreta, which served as fertilizer. Bringing water from the marsh into the paddy fields had a cleaning effect, improving the water quality.

The reduction in pesticides and artificial fertilizers led to a 20% reduction in rice yield, but consumers welcomed the safe, chemical-free rice. Fuyu mizu tanbo rice became a brand commanding higher prices, pleasing the farmers with their increased income. Tourists came to the region in increasing numbers, eager to observe and photograph the birds. This had previously been a purely agricultural area with rice as its main source of income, but now it began to bustle with flocks of birds and tourists.

As the number of farmers involved in the project gradually increased, it became clear that leaving water in paddies during winter was an effective way of bringing back flocks of geese. Similar initiatives to protect the birds have spread across the country, including preventing the reclamation of retention ponds in wintering grounds and protesting the construction of roads passing near the grounds.

Fuyu mizu tanbo have also been introduced in the paddies around Miyajimanuma in Hokkaidō. The rice produced there is sold under the brand name Ezo-no-gan mai, or Ezo Goose Rice (Ezo is the old name for Japan’s main northern island).

The coexistence of bird conservation and rice growing has even reverberated overseas. At the Ninth Ramsar COP, or Conference of the Contracting Parties, held in Uganda in 2005, Kabukurinuma and the surrounding rice paddies was registered as a Ramsar site. In 2008, the tenth Ramsar COP held in Changwon, Korea, and the tenth Convention on Biological Diversity COP held in Nagoya both adopted a “Rice Paddy Resolution,” underlining the importance of conservation of paddy biodiversity.

1 Lake Kutcharo 26 Sakata
2 Sarobetsu plain 27 Tateyama Midagahara and Dainichidaira
3 Lake Tōfutsu 28 Katano-kamoike
4 Uryūnuma marshland 29 Nakaikemi wetland
5 Notsuke Peninsula and Notsuke Bay 30 Mikata five lakes
6 Lake Akan 31 Tōkai hilly land spring-fed mires
7 Miyajimanuma 32 Fujimae tideland
8 Lake Fūren and Shunkunitai sandbank 33 Lake Biwa
9 Kushiro marshland 34 Lower Maruyama River and the surrounding rice paddies
10 Kiritappu marshland 35 Kushimoto coral communities
11 Lake Akkeshi and Bekanbeushi marshland 36 Nakaumi
12 Lake Utonai 37 Lake Shinji
13 Ōnuma 38 Miyajima
14 Hotokenuma 39 Akiyoshidai Groundwater System
15 Izunuma and Uchinuma 40 Higashiyoka tideland
16 Kabukurinuma and the surrounding rice paddies 41 Hizen Kashima tideland
17 Kejonuma 42 Arao tideland
18 Ōyama Kamiike and Shimoike 43 Kujū Bōgatsuru and Tadewara marshland
19 Hinuma 44 Imuta pond
20 Oze 45 Yakushima Nagatahama
21 Oku-Nikkō marshland 46 Streams in Kumejima
22 Watarase retarding basin 47 Keramashotō Coral Reef
23 Yoshigadaira wetlands 48 Lake Man
24 Yatsu tideland 49 Yonaha Bay
25 Lake Hyō 50 Nagura Amparu

Sites in red are Ramsar sites mentioned in the text.

Future Challenges

The remarkable comeback of the white-fronted goose throughout Japan today presents a dilemma. Numbers of geese have increased so much that the wintering grounds are now seriously overcrowded. There are even concerns that the birds may face food shortages. Damage to agriculture and the burden on the environment have become excessive, making coexistence with humans look increasingly difficult.

White-fronted geese are well adapted to living in paddy fields, although it might be more accurate to say that with most of the marshlands they once sought out converted into paddies, the geese have little alternative but to find food there. It has been calculated that 10,000 white-fronted geese feeding only on fallen rice grains during the five months they overwinter in this country would need 5,000–6,000 hectares of rice paddies to sustain them. Geese actually eat weeds and other plant matter as well as fallen grains, but even taking this into account, the fact remains that they need vast areas of land.

At the same time, paddy fields are undergoing huge changes. With shortages of labor, there is increased reliance on pesticides and mechanization. Also, paddies are increasingly being abandoned as the farming population ages, with few successors to keep farms going, and agricultural communities are swallowed by urbanization. There is a steady decline in the number of small reservoirs, which in the past were jointly looked after by local residents. And as agriculture declines, geese and other water birds are losing their homes.

When uncultivated rice paddies are left untended, they are soon invaded by pampas grass, reeds, and other rampant weeds, dramatically changing the ecosystem. From the point of view of water bird conservation, proper maintenance of abandoned rice paddies is essential.

Another problem facing birds living in overcrowded habitats is the constant risk of an avian influenza outbreak. According to the Ministry of the Environment, during the period from November 2016 to January 2017, viral infection of wild birds with highly pathogenic avian influenza was detected throughout the country. As of January 6, 2017, 164 cases of infection had been found in 16 different prefectures, the worst outbreak so far. All the cases were confirmed from dead birds that had been collected or from bird excreta.

Dead white-fronted geese infected with avian flu were found in Miyagi Prefecture. The virus has been found in more than 30 bird species, including whooper swans and peregrine falcons from Hokkaidō, hooded and white-naped cranes from Kagoshima Prefecture, and tundra swans and northern pintails from Tottori Prefecture.

Particularly worrying is the discovery of 23 cases of avian influenza in hooded cranes, an endangered species. The Izumi Plain in Kagoshima Prefecture is home to 13,000 hooded cranes, accounting for 90% of the total world population. These birds migrate from habitats in China and Russia to overwinter on the Izumi Plain, but the wintering grounds are overcrowded and there is fear of an outbreak.

“Flocks that have grown too big have to be broken up,” notes Kurechi, president of the Japanese Association for Wild Geese Protection. “However, they need space. White-fronted geese nest in marshes and lakes and forage for food in nearby rice paddies, so unless you can guarantee around 20 hectares for nesting or feeding, it is very difficult for flocks to break up.”

For some farmers, though, enough is enough. There are mutterings that with so many geese, it is time now to put a stop to conservation. Geese have made a successful comeback, but now a new wall threatens to halt their progress.

(Banner photo: As the sun rises on Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture, a flock of white-fronted geese fly off in unison toward their feeding ground. © The Yomiuri Shimbun/Aflo.)

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