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Modern phoenix: The bird brought back from extinction in Japan

Every day for the past 14 years, 72-year-old Masaoki Tsuchiya has set out before sunrise to search for a bird rescued from extinction in Japan.

Starting his car under star-dotted skies unpolluted by light, he works alone in the pre-dawn chill, marking sightings or absences in a planner, interrupted only by the crackle of a walkie-talkie.

The bird he is looking for is called “toki” in Japanese, and its presence on his home of Sado island is testament to a remarkable conservation programme.

In just under two decades, Japan’s population of wild toki has gone from zero to nearly 500, all on Sado, where the bird’s delicate pink plumage and distinctive curved beak now draw tourists.

It’s a rare conservation success story when one in eight bird species globally are threatened with extinction, and involved international diplomacy and an agricultural revolution on a small island off Japan’s west coast.

Tsuchiya, stocky and spry with an impish grin, doesn’t eat breakfast until he has made all his stops, and after years of practice he can spot chicks hidden in nests through the monocular attached to his rolled-down car window.

He points to virtually imperceptible marks on a road or a wall that help him remember where to park and start surveying.

Some days dozens of the birds appear in one area, something unimaginable in 2003, when a toki called Kin or “gold” died in a cage on Sado at the record-breaking age of 36.

Her death meant not a single wild-born toki was left in Japan, despite the bird being so synonymous with the country that it is also known as the Japanese crested ibis.

“I knew the day was coming. She was very old and frail,” Tsuchiya said. “But it was still a real pity.”

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