Japan, China may join hands to rescue crested ibis (Reuters)

TOKYO (Reuters) – Diplomatic ties between Japan and China are often fraught but in a sign of a recent thaw, the Asian neighbours could cooperate to save an endangered species of bird.

Chinese President Wen Jiabao is likely to announce the gift of several Chinese crested ibises when he meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this weekend at an Asian leaders meeting in the Philippines, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun daily said on Thursday.

The feathery gift would be the latest bilateral move to help save the crested ibis in Japan, a quest that began in 1998 with a similar presentation of two of the birds to Japan by China.

Masaru Hasegawa, head of the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center on Sado island in northwest Japan, said he hoped the report was true but couldn’t confirm it.

“We have been wishing for several years to get some more birds from China, mainly to help keep our birds from becoming too inbred,” Hasegawa added.

There are now 97 ibises in residence at the center, which hopes to start reintroducing them to the wild in 2008.

If Japan receives new birds from China, they would act as “teachers” for the Japanese ibises when they start learning to fend for themselves in a halfway facility later this year, Hasegawa said.

“Our birds don’t know how to do anything,” he added.

Japan was set to receive several birds from China some two years ago, but concerns about bird flu intervened.

With its ungainly body, short legs and long, drooping bill, the ibis may not appear the most instantly appealing of birds, but it holds a sentimental place in Japanese hearts.

The crested ibis, scientifically known as Nipponia Nippon, once inhabited lakes and wetlands throughout Japan, but extensive development and the use of agricultural chemicals wiped it out. By 1981 there were no more of the birds in the wild in Japan.

Top government spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference he hadn’t heard of a formal decision on the birds, but hailed the joint ibis-saving efforts.

“This is one good way of furthering friendship and cooperation between Japan and China,” he added.