Project for securing the habitat of Iriomote cat

To save endangered Iriomote cat
Iriomote cat is a wild cat living exclusively in Iriomotejima island (the largest island of the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa, Japan).

Mr.Yukio Togawa a noted animal novelist, discovered the cat (it was registered as a new species in 1967). The fact that a wild cat inhabited in such a small island (about 190 square miles, the half size of Tokyo 23 ward region) was a miracle and the discovery surprised the world.

Iriomotejima island is rich in water and forest. It has developed its unique ecosystem for 2 million years, which produced endemic species including Iriomote cat. Conserving the wild cat and their environment means saving the terrestrial ecosystem and biodiversity of the island. It depends on the land's natural environment whether human livelihood and Iriomote's economy can further develop. Preserving wildcat will also enable human and nature to stay side by side.

The population of Iriomote cat has reportedly decreased to about 100, and was listed as critically endangered species in Japanese Red List in 2007. The habitat of the wild cats is being destroyed for the improvement of agricultural infrastructure and resort development. Wild cats are also killed in traffic accidents in the highways near its habitat. Hence, we need to take e new measures in order to save the wild cat.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the discovery by Mr. Yukio Togawa, JTEF created a new page of information (in Japanese language only)
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A miracle wildcat
Iriomote cat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis) is a wild cat living exclusively in Iriomotejima Island (the largest island of the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa, Japan). Iriomotejima Island is rich in water and forest. The land was cut off from the main continent 2 million years ago during which it developed its unique ecosystem.. It is believed that all lives in island was evolved from it. The land also has rich diversity of unique species and Iriomote cat is one of them.

Iriomote cat is almost the same as a domestic cat in size (its weight is 3-5 kilogram). It has a long trunk, short legs and fat tail. The body is brindled and the part around its eyes is white. The face looks like a big cat. It is nocturnal and most active at dawn and in the evening. It does not act in a group.

Food and habitat
Small cats usually eat small mammals like rats. However rats do not exist in Iriomote island. Iriomote cats adopted to their environment by eating a wide variety of preys such as a fruit bat, birds, lizards, frogs, long armed prawns and crickets and so on. They came to live where a wide variety of species inhabit; especially around swamps and mangrove woods where river and sea meets. They are also seen in lecythidiaceae woods, where you can see beautiful flower at night in summer. In Iriomote, such wet areas are concentrated in a law land located below 200 meter, especially below 50 meters.
Mangrove woods

The society of Iriomote cats
Male cats are divided into two types in their life style. One settles in a certain home range. The others are transient, looking for a place to settle. The latter are young cats soon after leaving from their parents and old cats. Only the former type of cat can start to mate. A female cat settles in a home range with good quality in order to secure a place to hunt and make a nest to take care of their babies. Each female's home range is never overlapped. When one female dies, its home range is automatically taken over by another female.

A male cat settles in a female's home range to mate. It moves around, often between one or two home range of their female cats. But it never enters other male's home range.

Female cats deliver one or two cats from April to June near their hunting ground such as empty tree trunks. Mothers take care of them in summer. In fall and winter children begin to act apart from their mother and then leave their mother. Male cats move around and after a few years they settle and establish a home range surrounding single female's one, and mate. Female cats are said to stay with their family and succeed their mother's home range, but it is not certain.
Illustration:(c) Maki Okamura

Maki Okamura (2008): Conservation of endangered species: Iriomote cat, Mammalogy in Japan Vol.2, University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo (Japanese)
Iriomote Wildlife Center (1997): Iriomote Cat Book, Japan Wildlife Research Center, Tokyo (Japanese)

The threats to Iriomote cats
As its existence surprised the world, wild cats usually can't live on small islands. Iriomote's subtropical flora and fauna and geological condition (isolated from other continents) made it possible for Iriomote cats to survive for as long as 2 million years. However the ecosystem of subtropical island is intricately balanced. When the balance collapses, Iriomote cats will disappear at once. Now that is becoming real.

Iriomote cat is now at the brink of extinction. The three reasons for this is described as follows:

1. Habitat degradation:
The habitat of Iriomote cat is being degraded because of faulty land use patterns.
The cats' habitat is concentrated in wet lowland, in which humans also make lands for settlement and agriculture. Recently tourism is becoming Iriomote's main industry and the development of resort for tourism is going on. Human's land use worsens the cat's environment and they are forced to leave their home range.

2. Traffic Accidents
Secondly, many cats are killed in traffic accidents Okinawa Highway 215, Iriomote's single highway, runs along the coastline from southeast to northwest. The road runs through the lowland and consequently through the cat's home range. The cats crossing the road are being run over. Sightseeing buses and rental cars are increasing as tourism develops in Iriomotejima Island.

48 wild cats were killed by traffic accident in 29 years (from 1978 to February 2010). Most recently, three cubs or juvenile were killed just in January and February 2010.

Now highway 215 is undergoing expansion of its width. Not just the disturbance by road construction, but also the improved infrastructure can lead to heavier traffic and cause more accident. Okinawa Prefecture authorized to manage the highway and the Ministry of Environment have been making efforts by setting up large street-signs, under-passes and some other facilities, and campaigning for public awareness to avoid such accident, however, many drivers still run at high speed and do not pay enough attention for a life of wild cat.
Road killing often happens on a cite with good forest cover along the road, an area where the drivers can get high speed.

The population of Iriomote cats has been decreasing recently. In 1994, the number of the cat was 108-118. In 2008, the number decreased to 100-109. It was the first time since the cat was discovered that this kind of population trend was observed. Because of this, Iriomote cat was listed "1A" as critically endangered in Japanese Red List 2007 published by the Ministry of Environment.

Travel agents are conducting guided tours in the wet lowland and swamps, the cat's important living spaces. Such tours are increasing. Tourists are entering the places even the local people hardly ever set foot on. If too many people tread on the ground, plants and soils will be damaged. Swamps also might be polluted. If this trend continues, the plants and animals surrounding the cat can be seriously affected.

3. Expansion of Tourism:
Travel agents are conducting guided tours in the wet lowland and swamps, the cat's important living spaces. Such tours are increasing. Tourists are entering the places even the local people hardly ever set foot on. If too many people tread on the ground, plants and soils will be damaged. Swamps also might be polluted. If this trend continues, the plants and animals surrounding the cat can be seriously affected.

The fourth report on Iriomote cat's comprehensive research (2008): Ryukyu University, Okinawa (Japanese)
Committee of Environment Protection of the Daini-Tokyo Bar Association (2008): Report on Japanese legislation for conservation of Iriomote cat, Tokyo (Japanese)

Solution to the threats
The first is to secure the cat's important habitat. Iriomote's lowlands are now being destroyed for land use for the improvement of agriculture infrastructure and resort infrastructure for tourism. Further project must be carefully planned and undertaken. We must ask relevant administrative agency to restrict reckless project considering the cat's environment. We must submit concrete and scientific grounds.

Second is to prevent traffic accident. We must check the points where the traffic accidents are likely to occur or have actually occurred and improve the condition. We must take measures to control traffic volume and velocity especially at dawn and in the evening when the wild cats are most active.

Third is to regulate tourists' visits into the cat's home range. We must ask tourists to refrain from entering the cat's living spaces in case they give bad impact on the cats. We must conduct full and detailed investigation on how tourists damage the cat and its habitat.

The project supports the following activity.

1. Scientific research for conservation of Iriomote cat's habitat
The purpose is;
To find the most important habitat
To assess the impact of present or predicted land use to the habitat
To find necessary solution to conserve the habitat against the impact

2. Suggestion of the solution to the related authorities on timely manner.

3. Public awareness for conservation of Iriomote cat