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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Where eagles dare not fly

Mar. 2, 2018

With World Wildlife Day on March 3rd, Newsroom Tokyo takes a look at efforts to protect an endangered species in Hokkaido. Eagles dominate the northern skies, but their survival is in danger due to human activities.

Many rare birds can be found in eastern Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. They thrive in the area's rich natural environment. Red-crowned cranes flock in the snow-covered plains. The endangered Blakiston’s fish owl makes its home in the forest. Raptors soar in the clear winter sky.

One is a Steller's sea eagle. There are only about 5,000 left in the world. White-tailed eagles have wingspans over 2 meters. Some of them breed in Hokkaido.

Human activity poses a threat to these endangered birds. Many die from lead poisoning caused by bullets used by deer hunters -- even though lead bullets have been banned since 2004. Eagles often feed on deer carcasses left by hunters.

Keisuke Saito is a veterinarian who heads the Institute for Raptor Biomedicine Japan, or IRBJ. He's been treating injured eagles for 25 years.

This severely injured white-tailed eagle was brought to the institute after being hit by a car. It can't eat by itself. Saito feeds the bird.

"There are cases in which an eagle is run over when it crosses a road," says Saito. "Eagles are sometimes drawn to a deer carcass on the roadside, for example, and then they get hit.”

40 to 50 injured eagles are brought to the IRBJ for treatment every year.

After the birds recover, they're returned to the wild. The eagles of Hokkaido now face a new threat.

Strong and steady winds mean wind turbines are now a common sight along the coast of Hokkaido. But the updrafts also attract eagles.

"In fact, three white-tailed eagles died instantly in the wind turbine you see behind me," says Saito. “At first glance, wind farms appear to be environmentally friendly. But in fact, collisions with wind turbines have a big impact on endangered wildlife. To date, 48 white-tailed eagles and one Steller’s sea eagle have died from hitting turbine blades.” In 2016, the Environment Ministry worked with Saito and other experts to come up with ways of reducing bird strikes at wind farms.

Using sound and painting wind turbines are some of the ideas they suggested. But there's no easy solution to the problem.

Saito says a planned wind power project could increase the threat to the eagles of Hokkaido.

The Northern Territories are 4 islands controlled by Russia. Japan claims them. The Japanese government maintains the islands are an inherent part of Japan's territory. It says the islands were illegally occupied after World War Two.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin last September announced a plan to improve bilateral relations through joint economic projects on the islands. One of them is wind farms.

IRBJ studies show the islands lie on routes used by eagles flying between Russia and Japan. Saito is worried that the planned wind farms could lead to more birds being killed or injured.

"Japan Russia migratory bird convention explicitly states that the two countries will protect white-tailed eagles and Steller’s sea eagles," says Saito. "I think it’s very dangerous to build something so hazardous in the Northern Territories, prioritizing human interest."

The official of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy says it's aware of concerns including birds striking turbines. He says proper attention will be given to protecting the environment.

Saito says Japan and Russia need to work together more effectively to protect the eagles.

"[Russia and Japan] should not simply cooperate on building [wind farms]," he says. "They should also jointly assess the effect on the environment. I think it’s important to take a comprehensive look at the relationship between humans and the natural environment, and find a way to use the wind."

Saito releases a Steller's sea eagle back to the wild after it's been treated for injuries. He's looking forward to the day when no more injured eagles are brought to him.