The tragic fate of the Japanese albatross

The controversial Senkaku Islands, under Japan’s de facto control and with both China and Taiwan also laying claim on them, was initially a group of uninhabited islets no one paid attention to, let alone had any intentions of exploiting in any way. There was no doubt that the islands were utterly worthless. Under such circumstances, one particular group of creatures was prospering: the albatross! For them, the remote Senkakus were an ideal breeding ground.

Albatrosses, ahōdori (アホウドリ) in Japanese, are the world’s largest seabirds. Their body size ranges up to one meter, while their wing span reaches up to three metres. Some of them live for as long as fifty years. There are fourteen different species of ahōdori, such as the watari ahōdori (ワタリアホウドリ, Wandering Albatross), koahōdori (コアホウドリ, Laysan Albatross), to name a few. Sadly, the most common species of albatross have their population dwindling, and is designated an endangered species.

Poor ahōdori, facing extinction!

To make matters worse, their Japanese name ahōdori means “dumb birds”. How rude! This is as disgraceful as a name can get. How and why were they named like that, and why they are on the brink of extinction?

Etymology of ahōdori (“dumb birds”)

The word ahōdori was in a twist of irony attributed to their superior ability to soaring flight. This makes them able to spend most of their life at sea without landing on the ground except for the breeding season. They ride on the updraft, gliding over a long distance without flapping their wings. While their flight abilities are remarkable, they never developed good walking skills, clumsily waddling on the ground. Since they chose for their breeding place a solitary island in the distant sea without natural enemies, they did not need to develop a sense of vigilance.

They also need quite a “long runway” before taking off due to their considerable body size and weight. Now you can feel as if you hear the pitter-patter of big birds’ feet. It was probably child’s play for anyone to catch ahōdori. It was nothing but the carefree nature that gave them this disgraceful name after all.

Ahōdori on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species

So why is the ahōdori at the brink of extinction? Ahōdori lives in the Senkaku Islands (尖閣諸島) and on Izu Torishima Island (伊豆鳥島). From the end of the nineteenth century, they had been mass-slaughtered for their feathers, causing a dramatic reduction in population. This mass-slaughter coupled with volcanic eruptions on the islands of their breeding grounds drove them into extinction.

In 1958, Japan designated the ahōdori a Special Bird of Protection and a Special National Monument in 1962. In 1993, along with execution of the Act for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, ahōdori were designated a National Rare Species of Wild Animals. In 1990, their population accounted for about 1,200. According to an investigation conducted in 2010, there were only 2,570 ahō-dori found in Izu Torishima. They are listed as “vulnerable species” on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

There were people, who massively contributed to the ahōdori’s tragic fate, in particular, Tatsushiro Koga (古賀辰四郎, 1856-1918), a pioneer of the Senkaku Islands, and Han’emon Tamaoki (玉置半右衛門, 1838-1910), an entrepreneur who was first to exploit Izu Torishima. Their commercial activities were the major reason, why ahōdori were driven into extinction, however, ironically enough, these men were historically regarded as heroes.

Han’emon Tamaoki and the slaughter on Izu Torishima


Han’emon Tamaoki
Izu Torishima is a small island, 2.7 kilometres wide and about eight kilometres in length, located some 600km south of Tokyo. In the winter time, there used to be just so many albatrosses gathered to breed that there was almost no room to step in. In 1888, a Japanese entrepreneur learned that ahōdori were highly valued in the United States and Europe as a source of feathers. He obtained tenancy permits from the Japanese government, moved to the island with a dozen people and embarked on a frenzy of feather collection. His name was Han'emon Tamaoki (玉置半右衛門). About 400 grammes of feathers were gathered per slain ahōdori, and Han’emon was said to have captured 200,000 of them a year, five million in a time span of fifteen years. He sold 600 grams of feathers for about fifteen yen. After the ahōdori feather gained scarcity value, the price skyrocketed even more, and some feathers were sold at eighty yen per 600 grams. Because a bushel of rice was four pennies (銭 sen) around 1890, the price of the feathers was quite considerable.

Hence, Han’emon’s annual sales reached 8,400 yen, which by today's standards would put him on the billionaire’s list, but almost exterminated the Japanese albatross. In 1902, Izu Torishima experienced a major volcanic eruption, killing all 125 islanders, who had relocated there to capture birds. Some people attributed the disaster to the curse of the ahō-dori. In the wake of the eruption, Izu Torishima turned back into the unoccupied island it had previously been, and some people came to remember Han’emon as a notoriously greedy butcher of ahōdori.

In 1949, a research team looked for signs of ahōdori in Torishima, but their search ended without results. However, in 1951, a flock of albatrosses, 30 to 40 members, was found proliferous in Izu Torishima. They have been protected ever since.

The unspoken tragedy of Senkaku


Tatsushiro Koga
While the tragedy of the ahōdori in Torishima is well-documented in the annals of the animal kingdom, a similar story of almost the same dimension on the Senkaku Islands has remained shrouded in oblivion.

As on Torishima in the Izu Islands, ahōdori used to breed in large colonies in the Senkaku Islands. In 1884, a pioneer by the name of Tatsushiro Koga (古賀辰四郎, 1856-1918) learned from fishermen from Ishigaki Island that the Senkakus were so awash with albatrosses that there was almost no room to set foot ashore. He immediately despatched an exploration team to ensure that the islands held indeed colonies of sea birds and other valuable marine resources.

Convinced of the profitability of his venture, he asked the Meiji government in 1885 for permission to explore the Senkaku Islands. Although Home Minister Aritomo Yamagata (山縣有朋) was favourable towards his plan, Foreign Minister Kaoru Inoue (井上馨) advised them that Japan should not provoke the Chinese Empire, as territorial issues over the islands were still unresolved. It was in 1895, after the victory in the Sino-Japanese War, that Japan officially claimed sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.

In the same year, the Japanese government finally permitted Tatsushiro Koga to develop the islands, although he had already gone ahead and made his workers collect feathers of ahōdori without an official mandate. However, the governmental support only served to spur Tatsushiro’s high-flying ambitions. In 1897, he had his workers relocate to Uotsurishima (魚釣島), and in 1898 to Kubashima (久場島), to capture 150-160,000 albatrosses, dramatically slashing their population.

In an investigation conducted in Kubashima in 1900, only a small number of ahōdori flocks was found, consisting of just twenty to thirty birds. In a similar survey on Uotsurishima, quite a few numbers of albatross chicks were found, their capture, however, went on afterwards, and their population continued to plummet. Around 1910, ahōdori resumed scanty breeding in only four locations on Kubashima and two locations on Uotsurishima.

After 1900, due to the dramatic decimation of the ahōdori population, commercial feather collection in the Senkaku Islands was in the red, a situation that left Tatsushiro no choice but to change the line of his business. He started commercial guano mining and tuna fishing to continue his business. However, in 1940 he decided to completely withdraw from the islands. The Senkakus transformed back into an uninhabited territory. In 1939, a year before the complete withdrawal, there was not even a single ahōdori observed on the islands of Uotsurishima, Minamikojima (南小島) and Kitakojima (北小島).

In 1950, 1952, and 1963, investigations into the biota of the Senkaku islands were conducted. The research teams were unable to observe any ahōdori at all. They were therefore considered extinct in the Senkakus.

This is how the albatross became a “dumb bird”, an ahōdori, and one of the endangered species on the red list of ICUN. They were pushed onto that list by sheer human greed. Countless other species have shared the same fate as the ahōdori in the past. This is something every one of us should take a moment to think about.

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