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Gone to the Birds: Vending Machines Designed to Save the Okinawan Rail

By:  Kanako Ogata Jul 30, 2013
Okinawan rail

In the Yanbaru region of Okinawa, Japan—not far from the water source for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company’s Urasoe factory—vending machines are doing more than dispensing drinks: they’re saving the endangered Okinawan rail bird.

The Okinawan rail is a flightless bird living only in Yanbaru, the northernmost region of the Okinawan mainland. Announced as an academically unknown bird, its existence was first confirmed in 1981 before it was designated a protected endangered species in 1982. However, despite its protective status, mystery still surrounds the species and its decreasing numbers. Even the most basic data on the rail has yet to be recorded.  Because of these circumstances, a revolutionary new research method was recently proposed.

That method – to use vending machines! And so began the joint efforts of Coca-Cola Japan, Coca-Cola Bottling Okinawa, and the Okinawa Conservation & Animal Welfare Trust. Together they created the Endangered Okinawan Rail Biological Survey.

Vending machine with recording device

Through this project, existing vending machines in the Yanbaru region (such as the ones at the dam management offices) were fitted with IC recorders. The vending machines recorded the calls of the rails, providing data for surveying and analyzing.

As a result, one of the very first findings relates to the Okinawan rail’s calls. In the Yanbaru forests, there is a blank frequency in which no natural sounds fall – no insect chirps, no wind gusts, no rustling grass. It is essentially empty. But through the vending machine recordings, scientists discovered that the Okinawan rails have a special call that can only be heard within this specific frequency. Because no other animals use the frequency, it is now thought that this unique trait of the rails evolved in the Yanbaru forests for protective reasons.

“This project had a unique approach to studying birds’ biology, and that was to use environmental sounds,” reflected Yukihiko Nakamura, with environmental performance and technical stewardship at Coca-Cola Japan. “From those sounds, the distinct traits of both the Okinawan rail and the Yanbaru forests were understood for the first time. We were able to obtain very useful results.”

There has never been a large number of Okinawan rails, but their numbers are decreasing as traffic in the region increases, and they’re being hit by cars. The Ministry of the Environment declared a state of emergency in 2007 and 2010, and in 2012 the department documented a record 47 car-related rail deaths.

The biological survey revealed that Okinawan rails might have a harder time sensing approaching cars during rainy weather. As a result, conservationists are hoping that in the future, specific measures to prevent the birds’ traffic deaths will be taken under consideration.

Nakamura explained the details of this undertaking, saying “In the future, we hope that by researching man-made noise’s effect on the Okinawan rail, we will be able to help prevent their extinction.”

The forests of Yanbaru

He continued, “These days, corporations are expected to use their business not only to contribute to society, but to help the environment as well. The fact that Okinawan rails live is proof that the Yanbaru forests are healthy. A healthy forest nurtures abundant water. And since water is the most important resource to the soft drink business, Coca-Cola has an interest in protecting and surveying the forest and the Okinawan rails that live there. By using the special vending machines Coca-Cola produces, we will continue to develop this project alongside the region of Yanbaru.”

Coke has been conducting sustainability work across Japan for many years and believes these efforts must continue to work dynamically and actively toward the conservation of local water resources.