For millenia, birds making their great seasonal migrations have found Lake Kasumigaura to be a welcome place of respite from their arduous and exhausting journeys. Since long before the Japanese (or any other ethnic group) had settled its fertile shores, the lake has annually hosted myriads of transient airborne visitors who have taken advantage of its calm and shallow waters and the abundant foodstuff to be found in and around it. Naturally, with the encroachment of human activities there has been a decline in the avian population, though still in the Edo Period (1600-1868), Kasumigaura was known for its abundance of birds.
With Japan`s modernization, there was a new type of devastation, with pollution and habitat loss bringing about severe declines in the number of birds that could be seen on the lake. In recent years, there seems to have been a glimmer of hope for many species, with several grassroots and government-sponsored initiatives calling for the revitalization of the area`s nature and bringing back the badly beaten plant and animal life from the brink.
Last week, however, I discovered that there is no reason to be optimistic. In fact an excursion to the lake has left me shaken and sleepless. What awaits the weary migrators is not a welcoming sanctuary, as the signs posted on its shores proclaim, but a perilous labyrinth of agricultural nets, with which the slightest misstep leads to entanglement, and a slow and cruel death. Over the past decades traditional rice cultivation has been supplanted around Lake Kasumigaura by the more lucrative production of lotus root, a crunchy, delicious and beautiful vegetable, used in a variety of Japanese (and Chinese) dishes. When the lotus flowers (an important Buddhist symbol of man's ability to attain spiritual heights no matter what obstacle, because it rises out of murky water) bloom, the countryside around Tsuchiura becomes one great photo-op with their huge white and pink petals.
As can be imagined, birds cause damage to the farmers fields. This is something that all those who work the soil have to deal with and there are many methods of doing so. The government of Ibaraki Prefecture, however, has been subsidizing the purchase of a certain type of net which is particularly dangerous and cruel and highly ineffective in protecting its ward (most people I questioned assumed some kind of graft is involved). These nets are set up like tents over the fields and have large enough gaps for almost any bird to get through and do as they please in the fields. Unlucky ones, however, get entangled and are left to struggle miserably until they die. Only 8 percent of the birds killed in the nets are the types that do damage to the fields, and many local species (owls, hawks, egrets, and herons) can be seen rotting away in the nets. I was so distraught at seeing 2 coots hanging upside-down, that I waded through the muck belt high and cut them free with a pair of scissors. Hundreds more are still there right now dangling. It is NOT a pretty picture.
I can understand it if helping birds is not your first priority, but I think something should be done about this senseless slaughter. The Japanese Wild Bird Society is involved, but they are being very mild about the way they are trying to get results. The group has asked me to write letters to the government, etc. I believe, however, that a more effective strategy would be to stop purchasing or eating lotus root (and telling your friends to do the same) and announcing to the Prefecture why you have chosen to do so. Another idea would be to patronize only farmers who do not use these nets.
If you have ever taken pleasure in the beauty of birds, taken your kids to feed the ducks, love the nature of Ibaraki Prefecture or just hate senseless cruelty, you will join in on this cause.
Click here to see photos of this tragedy. (Not for the faint of heart.)
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