Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Biodiversity Duty

As the UN biodiversity meeting opens in Nagoya, marauding bears and toads highlight ecological dangers.

Major international talking shops often attract protesters, but those that took to the streets on the opening day of the COP10 biological diversity conference displayed a more voracious appetite than the usual activists.

Hundreds of kilometres from the congress centre in Nagoya, two female bears were spotted Monday combing for food near a primary school in Sharicho, Hokkaido. They were shot and killed before anyone was injured. And in the early hours of Tuesday, three bears were sighted roaming the streets of a town in Fukushima Prefecture.

Sightings of bears on streets across the country have reportedly increased in the past few months as the bears find food sources such as acorns increasingly scarce in their natural habitats of mountain forests and satoyama.

Satoyama refer to a diverse range of landscapes from forests to rice paddies and bamboo woods that lie near mountain foothills and require management by humans. These habitats are said to have been in decline since the 1970s as more people have flocked to cities.

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Japan, in its role as host, plans to press delegates to adopt its Satoyama Initiative to promote traditional farming approaches as a means of preserving biodiversity. While it may be impractical to revert entirely to such conservation methods, neglecting these important habitats will likely further upset the ecological balance—and lead to more marauding bears.

Also Monday, a report in the Yomiuri Shimbun pointed to the potentially devastating impact of an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 cane toads on Ishigakijima, an Okinawan island. The species was introduced there in 1978 to help eradicate a type of beetle that was destroying sugar cane crops. The problem is, though, that a single toad can eat up to a ton of food a month. Their bottomless stomachs have brought about a significant decline in the numbers of cicadas, stag beetles and other species native to the island.

One only has to look at Australia to see the damage that the introduction of these toads can cause. About 100 were released in Northern Queensland in the 1930s, but with few natural predators, their numbers have bellied massively to an estimated 200 million today, wreaking havoc on ecosystems.

Japan’s Environment Ministry will hold a workshop on invasive alien species later this week at the international portion of the biodiversity conference. It should be hoped that delegates and governments take note of the ecological risks of introducing alien species.They could also learn from their current Emperor, who happens to be a biologist with dozens of published papers on goby fish. He is reportedly distressed over his introduction of a non-native species of blue gill fish to Japan. These fish from the United States escaped into the wild from a research facility and wiped out native fish populations.

Japan was also cited as a major importer of endangered flora and fauna in a report released last week ahead the COP conference. The report by Traffic East-Asia Japan, a monitor of wildlife trade, criticized the country after finding rare turtles and other species on sale at several stores across the country.

Japan should take stock of the report and move toward ‘responsible consumption’ in its trade of wildlife.

And having blocked a proposed ban earlier this year on the international trade of the overfished Atlantic bluefin tuna (of which Japan consumes about 80 percent of the total global catch), the government should take a hard look at its responsibilities toward the biodiversity of the nation and the world.