SADO ISLAND, Japan (AP) _ The nation awaited the birth with rapt attention. Leaders predicted a new era of good will. TV stations beamed progress reports by the hour.

Then came the big moment: an exhausted Japanese crested ibis finally pecked its way out of a speckled shell and stumbled into the toasty air of an incubator.

The hatching last month of the nearly extinct ibis boosted Japanese efforts to grapple with decades of environmental devastation _ and provided living proof that reversing the damage won't be easy.

``The little ibis crawled out of the shell, and without thinking, we all grabbed each others' hands in joy,'' gushed Hiroki Chikatsuji of the Sado Crested Ibis Preservation Center, where the chick was bred.

Few species could have inspired as much media hype in Japan as the crested ibis.

The graceful bird _ with a red face and legs, pinkish-white body and sloping black beak _ once crowded rice fields all over the country and was a favorite of scroll artists. Its scientific name _ nipponia nippon _ left its Japanese pedigree unquestioned.

Then development, rice paddy pesticides and deforestation destroyed the ibis's food supply. A generation of Japanese knows the bird only as an endangered species.

``The ibis was a living thing that we took for granted,'' said Tomoki Ono of the Nature Conservancy Society of Japan. ``But then it disappeared, and it's become very precious.''

Researchers had been trying without success since the 1980s to produce more ibis in Japan. Though there are 140 of the birds on a preserve in China, until the new chick was hatched there was only one Japanese-born ibis left, a 32-year-old female too elderly to breed.

The breakthrough came in January with the arrival of Yo-Yo and Yang-Yang _ a crested ibis couple _ as a present from Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Emperor Akihito.

The experiment triggered a media frenzy. Each step of the operation _ the mating, the laying of the egg and the egg's development _ was covered in detail. During the final countdown, TV stations kept hour-by-hour updates on the chick's progress as it pecked through the shell.

The breeding also had a diplomatic dimension. A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry called the effort a symbol of blossoming relations between Tokyo and Beijing. After the May 21 hatching, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi thanked China for the gift.

``We would like to carefully raise the bird as a symbol of the Japan-China friendship,'' Obuchi wrote in a letter to Jiang.

If the hatching offered some hope of more ibis to come in Japan, it was also a strong reminder of just how devastated the country's environment has become.

The crested ibis is one of 90 endangered species of birds in Japan and among a total of 370 endangered species of animals in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

After decades of full-throttle industrial development, litigants are winning more lawsuits against polluters and activists are having some success in blocking development plans that threaten wetlands and other habitats in Japan.

The treatment afforded the ibis chick _ still unnamed _ is a measure of just how fragile its comeback is.

The ibis center on craggy Sado Island in the Sea of Japan, 190 miles northwest of Tokyo, keeps visitors away from the birds. Caretakers doting on the bird release updates on the chick's growth every couple of days.

Visitors to the center can catch a live glimpse of the adult birds on a remote video monitor. The chick _ scientists don't know its sex yet _ can be seen only in video clips, which show researchers feeding the bird with a glass tube and gently swabbing its beak.

Of the four eggs laid by Yang-Yang between April 22 and May 5, only one resulted in a chick. The center, however, says the adult birds are still mating and more eggs could come.

All the focus on the ibis has irked some environmentalists who say more attention should be paid to the hundreds of other endangered species.

Yuko Fuji, a recent visitor to the ibis center, said the hoopla over the bird has overshadowed the fact that if it were released into the wild now, it would die from lack of a habitat.

``It seems to me that the environment has been ruined,'' she said.