Remarkable Recovery: The Modern History of Japan’s Environment

The Short-Tailed Albatross: A Majestic Bird Driven to the Brink of Extinction


Its trusting nature and lack of agility on the ground has long made the albatross easy prey for humans. Whole colonies were once massacred for their soft down feathers, driving the species to near-extinction. The first of a set of articles on this bird looks at the early, disastrous history of its interaction with the Japanese.

The Short-Tailed Albatross of the Senkaku Islands

It was 1988, and I was a newspaper reporter on a small airplane flying over the Senkaku Islands. We made two turns around the islands while I had the cameraman accompanying me take a series of photos of the rugged cliffs passing before our eyes. Later, when the shots were developed, we could see fluffy black-brown chicks nestled in seven locations along the rocky ledges of the seaside cliffs.

We had just discovered Japan’s second short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) colony, the first being at Torishima in the Izu Islands. It had actually been known as early as 1971 that the Senkakus were home to a colony of albatrosses; we had just happened to photograph the chicks. Today there are only a few hundred of the birds remaining, but because entry to the islands is prohibited, no progress has been made on their research. Just one bird, however, did lead us to a big discovery.

The Translocation Project

A pair of albatrosses in a courting dance

Nearly all of the short-tailed albatrosses on the planet, with the exception of those at the Senkaku Islands, are concentrated on Torishima at the southern edge of the Izu Islands. Torishima is a volcanic island; should it ever erupt, the albatrosses could be wiped out. Since 2008, a national project has been underway to move the colony to a safer location.

The translocation project involves capturing newborn short-tailed albatross chicks and taking them 350 kilometers away to Mukojima, an uninhabited island in the Ogasawara Islands that used to be the location of an albatross colony. At Mukojima, the chicks are artificially raised and finally released to form a new breeding population. This is the first attempt of this kind in the world for albatrosses, and is based on careful research by Satō Fumio and others at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology into the minimum safe age for chicks to be transplanted to new breeding grounds.

In February 2008, 10 chicks were transported by helicopter from Torishima to Mukojima. There, for four months to the end of May, project leader Deguchi Tomohiro and other researchers from the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology fed the chicks and cared for them. Feed for the chicks was transported by fishing vessels every week from Chichijima, a three- to four-hour trip. The researchers camped on Mukojima until the chicks had grown. The translocation project continues to this day, with a total of 69 birds hand-reared to adulthood in the new location.

Ichirō Comes Home

The first batch of hand-reared albatrosses released from Mukojima roamed the north Pacific for three years before returning to the island in 2011. The first one to alight was a male named Ichirō. The next year he mated with Yuki, a wild albatross who was to become his life partner, but the egg she laid was infertile. For three years thereafter there were no young. But in 2014, the research group made a joyous discovery: A hand-reared female dubbed “Y11” had apparently mated with a male wild albatross born on Torishima and laid a viable egg on Nakōdojima, just 5 kilometers from Mukojima. The egg had hatched before the observers even realized what had happened. This was the first albatross chick to be born in the Ogasawara Islands in 80 years.

Amid soaring expectations, Ichirō and Yuki finally produced a viable egg on their fourth try, and a chick was born in January 2016. Congratulations and praise poured in from researchers around the world who had been watching the translocation project with keen interest. In May of the same year, another chick of unknown parentage was discovered on Yomejima, another of the Ogasawara Islands.

Where had Yuki, a wild albatross, come from? Satō and his group worked diligently to trace her origins, but it was Eda Masaki, a lecturer at the Hokkaidō University Museum, who found the answer. An analysis of Yuki’s genes revealed the unexpected fact that she had been born in the Senkaku Islands, more than 2,000 kilometers away.

Later research showed that 7% of the chicks born on Torishima had genes that could be traced back to the Senkakus, indicating that the parents had most likely met in their migratory routes over the north Pacific. Further study indicated that Yuki’s genes were very unlike those of the Torishima-born chicks, suggesting with high probability that the albatrosses of the Senkaku Islands represent a totally new species.

Satō believes that this may account for the fact that Yuki’s first eggs were infertile, as her reproductive cycle may have been slightly different. The day may soon come when the new breed of albatross is internationally recognized and given a name.

A Tokyo Island of Castaways

Administratively, Torishima is a part of the Tokyo metropolis. It is located at the southern edge of the Izu Islands, 580 kilometers south of the mainland portion of Tokyo and roughly 300 kilometers south of Hachijōjima. The small, 4.8-square-kilometer island is an active double volcano measuring 2.5 kilometers across at its widest, 7 kilometers in circumference, and 394 meters high at its highest point. It has been unpopulated since a small community of 125 people was wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 1902. There have been repeated eruptions since then.

The Kuroshio, a powerful ocean current that sweeps toward the east along the southern edge of the Japanese archipelago, periodically makes a big loop to the south, where it bumps into Torishima. There was a time when the island was populated with castaways from frequent shipwrecks—hapless fishing vessels caught in its powerful flow—who were left to eke out hard and tragic lives that have been portrayed in numerous literary works.

The remote island of Torishima.

An Island of Shipwrecks and Birds

The frequent shipwrecks were in part due to a seventeenth-century prohibiton against the building of ocean-going ships imposed by the Edo shogunate as a strategy to prevent the daimyō from building their own navies. Ships larger than 100 tons could not be built; no vessel was to have more than one sail or one mast; there was to be no keel; and the hull had to be flat. This made for vessels that did not fare well in storms and were easily wrecked.

Records compiled in the online Torishima hyōryū shi (History of Torishima Shipwrecks) show 14 shipwrecks on Torishima during the Edo period leaving 98 castaways, 80 of whom were eventually rescued. The longest stay on the island was achieved by three surviving members of a crew, originally 12 strong, who were washed ashore in 1720 and lived on the island for 19 years and 3 months. On average, those who survived a shipwreck were confined to Torishima for three years, but many, many more died of starvation, disease, or suicide.

With no fresh water or edible plants, Torishima is a harsh place to live. The fact that 80% of the people cast upon its shores nevertheless did survive was due to the island’s dense population of albatrosses—a frequent feature of the tales told by the survivors.

There is a written record of a 1788 shipwreck on Torishima left by the surviving crew of the ship out of Osaka that was portrayed by Yoshimura Akira in his 1976 novel Hyōryū (Adrift). This record includes a passage referring to the albatrosses.

[After being washed ashore] we pushed our way through the tall pampas grass to come upon a vast expanse totally covered in white and black birds. They were big birds and we were quite taken aback to see so many congregated in one place.

We know that 11 of the recorded shipwrecks occurred from November through March. Those who were trapped on the island during this time had a good chance of surviving because this was the period when the migrating albatrosses would be present. The birds provided meat and eggs to sustain the castaways.

An albatross egg is six times as large as a chicken egg and can make a good vessel to capture rain water for drinking, and clothing and mats can be made from the feathers and dried skin of the birds. Industrious survivors knew enough to prepare plenty of dried bird meat to stave off starvation during the period when the albatrosses were gone from the island.

Travelers of the North Pacific

A fully grown albatross will weigh around 7 kilograms and its outspread wings will measure 2.4 meters across. It rarely flaps its wings, preferring to ride on the winds like a giant glider. Albatrosses have no fear of humans and are clumsy walkers, making them easy prey to capture and kill—hence the Japanese name ahōdori, which literally means “foolish bird.” The Chinese characters for the bird’s name, 信天翁 (xintianweng) literally mean “an old man trusting in the heavens”—one who stupidly waits for food to fall from the sky.

Short-tailed albatrosses used to proliferate in the Ogasawara Islands, particularly Torishima, and the Senkaku Islands, but over the years some 5 million of the birds were slaughtered for their down. There were fears that the species would become extinct, but that danger has effectively been avoided thanks to protective measures. In 1962, Japan designated and protected the short-tailed albatross as a Special Natural Monument. (Illustration by Izuka Tsuyoshi)

In 1861 the French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire published “L’Albatros,” a poem describing one of these birds captured by sailors at sea with imagery that mirrors the “foolish bird” of Asian tradition:

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!

(Translation from William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil, 1954.)

There are currently believed to be 21 species of albatrosses. Two species, the short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatross) and the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), are found on Torishima. There is a very small colony of Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) on Mukojima in the Ogasawara Islands.

Migration takes the birds of Torishima away from the island in late April to early May; they return to breed in early October. Young birds that have matured enough to leave the nest do not return until the third year after their departure. Except for breeding season, the birds spend all of their lives over the seas. The albatrosses born in Japan migrate over a broad area of the north Pacific, including the Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands, and off the west coast of the continental United States.

Feathers for Export

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the down feathers of the albatrosses nesting en masse on the small islands in the Pacific off the main Japan coast became a valuable commodity for acquiring foreign currency. Mass nesting sites could be found not only on Torishima, but also on the Ogasawara Islands of Kitanoshima, Mukojima, Yomejima, and Nishinoshima, the Daitō Islands of Kita Daitōjima and Oki Daitōjima east of Okinawa, the Senkaku Islands, and the Penghu Islands near Taiwan. It is believed there were more than 10 million albatrosses throughout the Pacific at that time.

Tamaoki Han’emon (1839–1910), a Meiji-era entrepreneur, was the first to see the value of albatross down. In 1877, he set up the Tamaoki Shōkai company, and up to 1922 when he finally left Torishima, Tamaoki collected large volumes of feather down from the albatrosses, which he then exported to Europe. The barren outcropping was transformed into a treasure island. He was backed in all of this by the Meiji government, which even paid Tamaoki cash incentives to seek out more albatross breeding grounds.

Tamaoki’s venture might be better called a massacre. According to Hiraoka Akitoshi, the author of Ahōdori o otta Nihonjin (The Japanese Who Chased the Albatrosses), from around 1890 onward, nearly 400,000 birds on Torishima were slaughtered every year. One man beat 100 to 200 albatrosses to death every day. By the turn of the century, there were 300 people living on the small island, their sole purpose to collect albatross down. An elementary school was built and tracks laid for carts to haul the bird carcasses.

Yamashina Yoshimaro, founder of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, estimated that by 1902, at least 5 million albatrosses had been killed, bringing the species to the brink of extinction.

Photos by Hasegawa Hiroshi

(Banner photo: A short-tailed albatross soars over Torishima. © Hasegawa Hiroshi.)

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