Storks give wing to community
Pollution and farm pesticides contributed to the oriental white stork disappearing from Japan in 1971. The city of Toyooka in Hyogo was the last place the bird was seen in the wild. Now its government is fighting back.
With the prefecture government, civil groups and local university, the city rehabilitated the environment, increasing the biodiversity of marshes, rivers and fields, which allowed captive-bred storks to return. In 2007 the first chick hatched in the wild. Today wild storks can be spotted in the rice fields that dot the region.
The project caused a fundamental shift in farming methods too. Many farmers stopped using pesticides and made the switch to organic. “They were thinking about the birds but also wanted to grow safe rice for their children and grandchildren,” says Yasuhisa Miyashita from the city’s Oriental White Stork Co-existence division. Their efforts have also strengthened agriculture in the area. Crop yields are smaller but organic rice can be sold for a higher price. Abandoned farmland is being recultivated and farming has become a more sustainable business.
Miyashita says that people didn’t know where Toyooka was but this project has put it on the map. “People are proud of this beautiful green city again.”
The Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork opened in 1999 to research and breed the once-extinct species. In 2014 the University of Hyogo also established the Graduate School of Regional Resource Management in the park, specialising in ecology, geology and social science to nurture future talents in the field.
In Toyooka there are more than 30 marshes and biotopes across the city. Situated on the mouth of the Sea of Japan, Tai Marsh – repurposed from abandoned rice fields – has become a destination thanks to An-Girls, a proud local volunteer group that provides guided tours.
The change in Toyooka is all encompassing. Stork tourism attracts visitors, while the size of organic farm fields has jumped from 4.7 hectares in 2005 to 146.1 hectares in 2019. School pupils are eating safe, locally grown rice and getting their hands dirty in the fields, learning about the rich biodiversity in their hometown.
The oriental white stork is a symbol of the green revolution in Toyooka but it represents a much bigger picture. From mountains to farmlands and rivers to oceans, the ecosystem is inseparably connected. Toyooka’s rich environment has been improved and maintained by the holistic approach of the prefecture and ministries. Across the city, flood controls and hydrologic engineering to protect residents are carefully devised in harmony with the aim of improving nature for wild creatures. And this remote city in Hyogo is leading the way; other Japanese municipalities are introducing Toyooka-style models and cities outside Japan are inviting its experts to advise them too.
In Japan, rice fields don’t only produce the nation’s staple food; they are home to more than 5,600 species including 50 different mammals, 189 types of birds, 143 kinds of fish and more than 2,000 varieties of flowers and plants.
Storks inhabit the wild but close to humans, meaning that the species is a barometer of a healthy ecosystem near the environment people live in. Currently, there are around 200 wild storks in Japan. The Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork takes care of nearly 100 more.