To Live in Harmony with Endangered Wild Raptors: Report from the Forefront of “Remedying the Environment”

Keisuke Saito
President and D.V.M., Institute for Raptor Biomedicine Japan (IRBJ)

Fig1 Owl

The Institute for Raptor Biomedicine Japan (IRBJ), based in the Kushiro-shitsugen Wildlife Center of Japan’s Ministry of the Environment (Kushiro City, Hokkaido, Japan), has conducted conservation and research activities on endangered wild species mainly living in Hokkaido from the standpoint of conservation veterinary medicine. The subjects of the conservation and research include Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), and Blakiston's Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni). We rescue injured birds and take them to the Center for treatment, but the number of carcasses is much greater than that of live birds. The causes of the disease or death are revealed by diagnosis or pathological examinations of the carcasses. Natural deaths due to foraging difficulties of young birds or infections are found, but most deaths are caused by accidents or poisoning related to some form of human activity. Collision accidents (cars, trains, windmills), electric shocks, and poisoning of environmental pollutants constitute the majority of raptor rescue, but indirect damage with time such as nutritional diseases brought by the destruction of the foraging environment are also confirmed.


Fig2 Raptors

Accidents of large raptors are deeply linked with their characteristic biology. For example, raptors are more likely to perch on transmission line towers or power poles that may deliver electric shocks as they have the habit of using vantage points for monitoring or foraging. Also, due to their behavior of depending on the environment where foods are prone to be found, raptors are frequently coming to roads or railroads looking for run-over animals such as deer and therefore have a lot of collision accidents with cars and trains. Another issue of serious damage is lead poisoning caused by eating poison residues in hunted animals shot by lead bullets (rifle bullets and shotgun slugs/pellets). In addition, raptors use spaces where steady strong winds blow as migration paths, and therefore they have severe collision accidents with windmills for wind electricity (bird strikes) on the roads throughout Hokkaido. Such accidents are caused by the distinctive biology of raptors.


Selection along with the “rules of nature” including adaptability to the environmental change, predation in the food web, and infections in general has been repeated since time began. However, various accidents and poisonings brought by human activities and large-scale destruction of habitats possibly cause massive wild life deaths over a short period. On the other hand, this also means that we can drastically decrease the human related accidents in a short period by promptly dealing with the problems when the processes or concrete causes are revealed. In order to prevent such accidents, it is absolutely critical to assess the situation through the investigation of injured birds, and remove the causes and impulses. We should take a proactive rather than a reactive approach.


It is also necessary both to rescue injured individuals and to steadily promote preventive measures through making in-depth investigation into the cause of injuries and illnesses so as not to waste their pains and lives. Especially, it is essential to eradicate the root of anthropogenic factors with wildlife including accidents, to avoid repeating the same things. I name the activities which make safe and sound nature environments for humans and animals as “remedying the environment” and position it as the axis of my work. Prevention of the causes of anthropogenic illness through “remedying the environment” leads to keeping a good balance of ecosystems and improving their soundness based on the rules of nature.


With the permission of Japan’s Ministry of the Environment, IRBJ develops and conducts preventive measures against various accidents through making use of endangered raptors that have difficulties in returning to the wild. Regarding the prevention of electric shocks, we developed protective devices and conduct examination of their effectiveness by using injured eagles. As for bird strikes recently emerging as an important issue, we conduct experiments in order to confirm the recognition of windmill blades by Steller's Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle, and to develop effective preventive measures by make use of injured birds that have difficulties in returning into wild due to the after effects.


I would like to provide concrete examples of “remedying the environment,” through explaining electric shock accidents and lead poisoning that are recently emerging as serious problems for large endangered raptors living in Hokkaido.



Electric Shock Accidents

Fig3 Bird checkers


Today, electric shock accidents of raptors are emerging as a serious problem around the world. Raptors have a habit of perching on vantage transmission line towers or power poles, and this habit causes a lot of electric shock accidents. According to the recent records, the number of the accidents is 25 for Steller's Sea Eagle, 9 for the White-tailed Eagle, and 13 for Blakiston's Fish Owl as of 2013. Most of these accidents were caused by contacting or approaching cables when raptors tried to perch on towers. Understanding the circumstances of the accidents, sites of occurrence, posing of birds and the energizing parts based on information obtained from the circumstances of electrical facilities and injured birds leads to finding important clues for thinking about preventive measures and prevention of recurrence.


When new electric power distribution equipment is installed, it is necessary to adopt designs securing safety when raptors living in surrounding areas perch on the electric poles. Regarding the existing electric power distribution equipment, installation of “bird checkers” (preventive devices for birds’ electric shock accidents), and installation/induction of safe perches are necessary. In cooperation with an electric power company, IRBJ develops protective devices and conducts effectiveness examination through using large raptors, and the effective devices have been adopted for more than 1800 poles in Hokkaido.


Fig4 Bird checkers

Fig4 Notes



Lead Poisoning by Lead Bullets


Fig5 Radiograph

In Hokkaido, lead poisoning deaths of Steller's Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle have been found since the late 1990s and are considered as an important social problem. Hunting of Yezo Sika Deer (Hokkaido Sika Deer, Cervus nippon yesoensis) is very popular in Hokkaido, and hunted deer are usually hallaled on site. As the parts including lead bullets are not available for eating, most hunters abandon the parts in the mountains. Steller's Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle become heavily poisoned through the ingestion of the parts containing the fragments of lead bullets (mainly rifle bullets).


Lead poisoning death of a Steller's Sea Eagle by lead bullets was found in 1996 for the first time, and 160 bird deaths have been confirmed so far. Most of these dead raptors were found by anglers and hikers by accident, and the lead poisoning of the 160 raptors was revealed by specialized diagnostic tests. Most eagles migrate in midwinter and die due to lead poisoning in snowy deer hunting sites. Therefore, the number of deaths may be only a small proportion of the injured birds.


A number of lead poisoning deaths of Steller's Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle have been confirmed with a high frequency, and we have encouraged the local government of Hokkaido and hunters’ clubs to use atoxic bullets including copper bullets as part of “remedying the environment.” As a result of our activities, the local government of Hokkaido enforced a regulation regarding lead bullet use for deer hunting from the 2000 fiscal year in the form of a notice. It also set regulations regarding the use of shotgun slugs/pellets for deer hunting in the 2001 fiscal year, and the abandoning of hunted animals in the 2003 fiscal year. Since the 2004 fiscal year, the use of lead bullets for all large animals including brown bears has been banned in Hokkaido.


Fig6 Died from lead poisoning

Nevertheless, 68 Steller's Sea Eagles and 29 White-tailed Eagles were brought to the center as highly lead poisoned live birds or dead birds from 2000 to the spring of 2013 when the regulations were in place on the use of lead bullets for deer hunting. The lead poisoning of eagles is still confirmed, and this fact underpins non-compliance with the existing regulations. We are still on the road to resolving the problem.


Deer hunting is conducted throughout Japan, and the raptors such as golden eagles and mountain hawk-eagles which are more broadly distributed than fish eagles are likely to be poisoned by lead. In fact, deaths of lead poisoned mountain hawk-eagles have been confirmed in Hokkaido, and this problem seems to be common throughout Japan.


The present regulations only ban the use of lead bullets, and do not apply to their sale, purchase and possession. In addition, it is quite difficult to crack down on the parties except in flagrante delicto. It is highly likely that the hunters from outside Hokkaido, who are not regulated regarding lead bullets, bring and use them for deer hunting.


In October 2013, a bill to ban the use of lead bullets for hunting was enacted in the State of California in the USA. Regulations to ban the use of lead bullets for preventing lead poisoning are a world trend. Also in Hokkaido, possession of lead bullets for hunting deer has been banned by “the Regulation on the Promotion of measures for Yezo Sika Deer” since October 2014. However, the only effective measure to realize the eradication of lead poisoning is to eliminate lead bullets from all hunting throughout Japan. We should urgently realize the measure in order to halt the massive deaths of endangered species.


In order to effectively promote the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, it is critical for humans to take a stance to bear responsibility and promptly remediate wildlife damaged by human activities. Injured wildlife give us precious messages in exchange for their pains and lives. There is an urgent need for us to appreciate their messages, find clues from them, and take concrete preventive measures. Each of us should realize that we live together with wildlife. I think that it is most important to proactively make efforts to conduct “remedying the environment” from respective standpoints in order to remove human-induced damage with responsibility.


Fig7 Raptors

Fig8 Raptors on a tree


More about IRBJ

Conservation medical activities for wild endangered raptors, in Hokkaido Japan




 Profile of  Keisuke Saito


Keisuke Saito is a wildlife veterinarian working on the conservation of the Japanese endangered species in Hokkaido; the northern most islands of Japan. He has been engaged in conservation veterinary medicine as the director of the Institute for Raptor Biomedicine Japan, established in the laboratory of the “Kushiro-Wetland Wildlife Center.” His main study is conservation breeding of and a rehabilitation program for Blakiston's Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni), but he also engages in the health control of endangered raptors such as Steller’s Sea Eagle, the White-tailed Eagle, the Golden Eagle and the Japanese Mountain Hawk Eagle.

From 1994, he started to work as a professional researcher and wildlife veterinarian in Kushiro Wetland Wildlife Center; a facility managed by the Ministry of the Environment of Japan. In 1996, he found for the first case, the lead poisoning of a Steller’s Sea Eagle, caused by the ingestion of a rifle bullet. He started a movement with his colleagues to ban the lead rifle bullet and shotgun slug, asking for their regulation by changing Japanese hunting laws. He finally succeeded in changing the national hunting law, to limit the use of lead bullets and slugs in deer hunting from 2001.

He is also one of the administration officers of the World Association of Wildlife Veterinarians (WAWV) and Japanese Association of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine.


・Executive positions at present

1. Member of the Committee for the Conservation of Endangered Fauna and Flora (Japanese Ministry of the Environment)

2. Member of the Expert Committees for Japanese Endangered Species (J.M.E.); Blakiston’s Fish Owl, Steller’s Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle.

3. Executive Committee member of the World Association of Wildlife Veterinarians (WAWV)

4. Executive Committee member of the Japanese Association for Zoological and Wildlife Medicine.


・Book (English)

Raptor Biomedicine 3, Zoological Education Network, 2000, 163-169

Lead poisoning of Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) and the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) caused by the ingestion of lead bullets and slugs in Hokkaido Japan, Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition: Implication for Wildlife and Humans, The Peregrine Fund, Boise Idaho USA, 2009