Birds of Asia -- Their Role in Spreading the Environmental Message

HIH Princess Takamado

Lecture 2004-01-19. Annual General Meeting
Venue: Canadian Embassy

Some 200 members and guests thronged the theatre of the Canadian embassy on the occasion of our annual general meeting, to hear our Patron, H.I.H. Princess Takamado, speak on ÒBirds of Asia -- Their Role in spreading the Environmental messageÓ. Among the guests were the ambassadors of Djibouti (doyen of the diplomatic corps), the Czech Republic, India (with his wife, who is High Commissioner to Canada), Turkey, and the United States, with other diplomatic representatives from the European Union, Ireland, Luxembourg, Pakistan and the Philippines (our apologies if any others have been inadvertently omitted).

First Mr. Leo Yoffe welcomed all those present to the Canadian embassy, and then introduced our MC, Dr. Peter McMillan, who called upon the President to conduct the first item of business, which was to ask for the approval of the reports for 2003. Prof, Wilkinson also took the opportunity to make two announcements, which are recorded in the News Notes below. Dr. Mark Lee Ford then acted as temporary chairman to conduct the election of officers and Council members for the coming year. The slate prepared by the nominating committee was unanimously accepted, and the constitution of the new Council is as follows:

  • President: Prof. Hugh E. Wilkinson
  • Vice-Presidents: Prof. Masahira Anesaki, Dr. Hubert Durt, Mrs. Hisami Kurokochi, Mr. Hiroshi Sakamoto
  • Corresponding Secretary (Bulletin): Prof. Wilkinson
  • Bulletin Coordinator and Associate Corresponding Secretary: Mrs. Doreen Simmons
  • Recording Secretary: Prof. Patrick Carey
  • Treasurer: Mr. Heiko Thienenkamp
  • Editor: Prof. Robert Morton
  • Council Members: Mrs. Sayako Arai, Prof. C. Lee Colegrove, Dr. Charles M. De Wolf, Dr. Robert D. Eldridge, Mr. Yasunobu K. Kyogoku, Mr. Masayasu Kunisawa, Dr. Peter McMillan, Dr. Ciaran Murray, Mrs. Uta Schreck, Mrs. Shigeko Tanaka, Mrs. Yumiyo Tokugawa

We now came to the main event of the evening, and for this purpose Her Highness was introduced by Mr. Richard Grimmett, Head of BirdLife Asia, who spoke highly of her efforts for the conservation of the environment.

Her Highness opened by saying that she had first taken an interest in birds when she was a child, for her maiden name, Tottori, contained the character for ÒbirdÓ. Her interest in birds became more widely known when she became honorary patron of the Rare Bird Club of Asia, a group that supports BirdLife Asia, which is the Asian Division of BirdLife international. But she wanted to speak first, not of birds, but of the environmental issues facing Asia today. These were complicated by the fact that, as was recognised at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in October 2002, the protection of the environment had to be set against the need in many countries for economic growth.

The history of the human race was one of adaptation to the environment. In order to survive, all species adapt so as to get the maximum benefit from their chosen habitat and climate. So, when forests gave was to grasslands, the early hominids came down from the trees and stood erect; later, the various species of the genus homo created tools, started the use of fire, and developed language as a means of communication. With a brain approximately one-third larger than that of homo erectus, homo sapiens was able to adapt to all environments throughout the world, and increased dramatically in number.

It was through this very adaptability that homo sapiens could not but affect and threaten the ecosystem of our earth. Here, Her Highness listed six ways in which this happened: (1) hunting and gathering certain species to extinction; (2) over-extraction of water, including the damming of rivers; (3) industrial pollution; (4) the introduction of alien species; (5) human-assisted climate change; and (6) land degradation, e.g. deforestation and desertification. With regard to (5), a recent report stated that by 2050 we would have lost one third of all life forms, and a quarter of all land animals and plants (1 million species); we risked losing our comfortable environment for the sake of short-term gains.

As far as Asia was concerned, she wished to speak of the area east of a line running from Pakistan to the Yenisey River, which is 'Asia' as defined by BirdLife International, and takes into consideration birds' migratory routes. This region has been greatly affected by human activities; many parts of it have been intensively cultivated for centuries, and recently tropical forests have been rapidly exploited. Half the world's population lives in this region, and the combination of economic development and an increase in population is putting an unprecedented pressure on the environment. There has been a massive expansion in logging, and widespread conversion to cash crops such as oil palm and coffee. Furthermore, the hunting and trapping of wild birds is reaching unsustainable proportions.

There are approximately 10,000 bird species in the world, of which over 2,700 are to be found in Asia; a high proportion of these birds are confined to forests, such as the tropical rain forests in Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. If there is such a diversity of bird species, it means that there is an equal diversity of other species within the same habitat; thus the protection of the habitats of birds means also the protection of habitats vital for the survival of other animal and plant species. The single most important cause of bird extinction is the loss of forest habitat, which means that immediate action in southeast Asia is imperative if mass extinctions are to be averted.

Her Highness then showed some slides illustrating the destruction of rain forests. The issues involved concerned, first, forest mismanagement and illegal logging. Then there was the heedless clearance of forests for conversion to agriculture at subsistence farming level, and equally the conversion to plantations, especially of oil palms for producing edible oils. Again, most of the wood for the paper pulp industry was coming from natural forests. Logging also resulted in forest fires and floods; rainwater rushed down the denuded slopes and ran into the sea without replenishing the groundwater system (in one part of the Philippines 7,000 died when a typhoon struck in 1991, as the whole of the watershed had been converted to sugar cane plantations). The silt thus flowing into the sea killed the coral reefs, which meant that the tourist industry suffered in turn. Mining had also caused considerable damage, not to mention the inevitable pollution.

Her Highness then showed slides of forest birds: the black hornbill, pied hornbill and crowned pigeon from Borneo, the Javan hawk eagle, Gurney's pitta (lost for 90 years and recently rediscovered in Myanmar), the Bali starling (almost extinct because of the trade in wild birds), the cerulean paradise-flycatcher (recently rediscovered), the yellow-crested cockatoo (critically endangered), the Philippine eagle, the Negros bleeding-heart also from the Philippines, and the fairy pitta from Taiwan. They were all examples of species which might be lost for ever if their habitats were destroyed. She also showed three birds from other parts of Asia: Jerden's courser, found in a few sites in southern India, the lesser kestrel, found in desert areas in Mongolia and China, and Blakiston's fish owl, found in temperate zones including Japan (and named after an early member of the ASJ who, with another member named Pryer, catalogued the birds of Japan).

Her Highness then turned her attention to an area in Japan that needed protection, the Yambaru region of Okinawa, which had a tremendous number of endemic species, but was beginning to suffer the effects of logging. The Yambaru environment had been exploited so extensively that only small pockets of the original forest were left. Rainwater had washed away the soil and carried it into the sea, where it was damaging the coral reefs and causing havoc with the fishing. One slide showed a species of violet which had been discovered in an area later flooded by the Benoki Dam; it had been taken away and carefully looked after, but no other plants had been found in the area. Another slide showed a Pryer's woodpecker (the same Pryer), on a sudajii evergreen oak, and this was followed by slides of the Okinawan rail, the Amami woodcock and the Ryukyu robin. There were four more slides of Japanese birds: a ruddy kingfisher offering a crayfish to its intended mate, a little tern on its nest and a little ringed plover which seemed to have got confused and was sitting on the same nest, and a Steller's sea eagle, a most magnificent bird.

So what was the 'environmental message' of the title of this talk? Perhaps it had already been conveyed by the slides. In 1972 Dr. James Lovelock had proposed the Gaia hypothesis. Her Highness's understanding of it was that, in simple terms, the earth operated like the human body; if one part went wrong, another part tried to compensate, and if we became ill we tried to recover. Just as the body was made up of so many diverse elements which medical knowledge could not yet begin to comprehend, so it was its very diversity that made the earth so alive. When we were ill we needed love and attention, and words of encouragement from our friends. In the same way, should we not show our planet that we care? If each and every one of us just cared a little bit more, that would produce a lot of energy. After these words, Her Highness quickly ran through a final selection of slides of animals and birds and their habitats, finishing with a soaring arctic tern, the bird that travels further than any other bird in the world.

Her Highness had expressed herself willing to answer questions, and first she advised those who wished to watch birds to use a field guide that could tell them what to look for; the Wild Bird Society of Japan, for example, had produced such a handbook, and it also sponsored field trips. On migration: there were different patterns, but all birds migrated at least over a short distance. It was not instinctive, and parents had to teach their young the way to go. On a question of the nuisance posed by the crows in Tokyo, she said that they were necessary as scavengers; they had become a pest because the human inhabitants of Tokyo kept on providing increasing amounts of food for the crows to clear away. Crows did not normally attack humans and could usually be faced down; though a walk through the Palace grounds sometimes required resolute determination!

The meeting concluded with a vote of thanks proposed by the Canadian ambassador, H.E. Mr. Robert G. Wright, who thanked Her Highness for reminding us that the 'global' world concerned not only human affairs but everything else on this planet. He also spoke of the celebration this year of the 75th anniversary of Canadian-Japanese relations which had begun on the previous Thursday with a ceremony attended by Princess Takamado, who was also a patron of the Japan-Canada Society. One of the events connected with the anniversary was an exhibition of photographs of Canada taken by Prince Takamado. These were exhibited in the adjoining Prince Takamado Gallery, and the ambassador invited all those present to look at them.

The meeting was followed by a sumptuous reception hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Wright, at which we also enjoyed the gift of sake traditionally provided at New Year by Mr. Takeo Yamaoka, together with the specially inscribed 'Asiatic Society' masu to drink it from. There was also a display of Her Highness's books, and another display of materials from BirdLife Asia.