Project for securing the habitat of Iriomote cat

To save endangered Iriomote cat
Iriomote cat  (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis) 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 in 1965 (it was registered as a new species in 1967). The fact that a wild cat inhabiting such a small island (about 190 square miles, half the size of Tokyo's 23 Ward Region) was a miracle and a discovery that surprised the world.

Iriomotejima island is rich in water and forest. It has developed its unique ecosystem for 2 million years, which produced other endemic species including the Iriomote cat. Conserving the wild cat and their environment means saving the terrestrial ecosystem and biodiversity of the island. The survival of Iriomote cats in the wild, until now, is a good sign that the way of life and the economy of the local people has been in harmony with the wilderness of the island. Prioritizeing preserving the cats will also enable human and nature to further develop together.

Unfortunately, careless new development and road improvements have caused the population to decrease to about 100, and was listed as critically endangered species in Japanese Red List in 2007. The habitat of the cat is being destroyed for the improvement of agricultural infrastructure and resort development. The biggest threat to the cats are getting hit by cars on the highway which cut through its habitat. Hence, we need to take new measures in order to save the wild cat.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the discovery by Mr. Yukio Togawa, in 2015 JTEF created a special website (in Japanese language only) Click here


A miracle cat
The Iriomote cat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis) are a subspecies of leopard cat, living exclusively in Iriomotejima Island in Okinawa. Iriomote'jima' or 'Island' has a diverse terrain which is about 298 squre km (as large as Fresno, CA). The land was separated from the Eurasian Continent, cut off for 90,000 years during which it developed its unique ecosystem. The land also has rich diversity of unique species and Iriomote cat is one of them.

Iriomote cats are almost the same size as domestic cats (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 due to a small mane. It is nocturnal and most active at dawn and in the evening. It is solitary in nature, except during breeding season.

Food and habitat
Small cats adopted to their island environment by eating a wide variety of prey such as fruit bats, birds, lizards, frogs, long armed prawns and crickets and so on. They came to take advantage of seasonal and tidal sources of food, using a wide variety of habitats; especially around wetlands and mangroves where the river and sea meets. They are also seen in lecythidiaceae woods, where you can see delicate beautiful flowers blooming at night in the summertime. In Iriomote, such wet areas are concentrated in the low lands areas,located from 200 meter to 50 meters sea level.
Mangrove woods

The society of Iriomote cats
Male cats are divided into two types which largly determines their daily routine. There are males with a certain home range, which the others are transient, looking for their own terriory. The transient are usually young cats soon after leaving from their parents or old cats that have weakened with age. Dominant cats that have their own territory can mate. A male cat settles in a female's home range to mate. It moves around, often overlapping one or two home ranges of female cats. But it never enters other male's home range.

A female cat will settles in a home range with access to a secure place to hunt and make a safe den to take care of her kittens. Each female's home range does not overlap. When one female dies, its home range is automatically taken over by another female.

Female cats may have one or two kittens in a littler from April to June near their hunting ground. The den might be in a covered area such as empty tree trunks. Mothers care for the kittens throughout the summer. In fall and winter the kittens may start to become more independent of their mother and then eventually will leave their mother. Male cats move around and after a few years will settle down as they establish their own home range to be able to mate. Female cats are said to stay within and succeed their mother's home range, but it is not certain. There are still many research needs to find out more about their biology.

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
Wild cats usually can't live on such small islands, so their existence surprised the world.The population of Iriomote cats has now reportedly decreased to about 100, and was listed asa critically endangered species on the Japanese Red List in 2007(critically endangered 1A)(1991 was listed as endangered. Listed as a National Special Natural Treasure,it is protected by Japanese law) 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 90,000 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.
In fact, the wild cats are suffering road kill in the highways across its habitat. The habitat of the wild cats would also face the risk of modification by improvement of social or agricultural infrastructure and resort development. The tourism pressure to the cats and their habitat has recently appeared as an emerging threat to the cats, also.

The three threats can be elaborated as follows.

1. Roadkill
Many cats are killed in traffic accidents along Okinawa Highway 215, Iriomote's single highway, which runs along the coastline from southeast to northwest. The road runs through the lowlands and consequently through the cat's home range. The cats crossing the road are being run over. Sightseeing buses and rental cars are also increasing as tourism develops in Iriomote Island increasing the threat.

To date, 75 roadkills of Iriomote cats in 79 incidents were recorded in 40 years (from 1978 to February 2017). The number should not be negligible considering the total population. Furthermore, 7 road kills in 2016 hit the record high. The reproduction or replacement rate is probably not high enough to compensate for this loss.

Highway 215 with recent expansion of its width, could lead to more high-speed driving and cause more road kill. 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, the number of road kill has only increased.


2. Habitat degradation:
The habitat of Iriomote cat is being degraded due to development. The humans and cats share the same affinity for the lowlands where farmers also like to open feilds for agraiculture and settlments. More recently, tourism is fast becoming Iriomote's main industry and the development of resorts for tourists means that our land use worsens the cat's situation and they are forced to leave their home range.

3. Tourism pressure
Guided tours along the mountain streams and swamp forests, the cat's important feeding areas are also increasing. Tourists are entering the places that the local people rarely set foot in. There are 2,300 local residents, but annually estimates of 300,000 tourists visiting Iriomote. If too many people tread on the ground, it can damage the plants and soil affecting microclimates. Swamps also might be polluted. If this trend continues, the plants and animals in the ecosystem supporting the cat, can be seriously affected.

The Japanese government has made proposals to list this island along with others, on the list for World Natural Heritage Sites in order to increase tourism income. JTEF has written letters to address these proposals, stating that there are currently no controls for ecotours or night tours to protect the cats from stalking or habitat degredation on a scale that would affect all the cats on the island. Shockingly, it is predicted that the visitors will double to be 700,000 in 3 years after inscription to the World Natural Heritage Site list.

Our Ongoing Projects

1. Roadkill Prevention Project
JTEF conducts a night patrol 'Yamaneko patro-ru' from 19:30 to 22:00, which is the time period when most roadkills happen. The teams drive a car with a revolving warning yellow light at 20 – 30 km/hr, to remind drivers to slow down; to remove any roadkill or live animals that may end up attracting the wild cats; and to scare away any cats that are observed along the roadway. This is done in order to make sure the cats retain some natural fear of humans and the road in order to make them act more cautious when near the highway.

2. Securing Wild Habitat Project
It is very important to protect the habitat of Iriomote cats for its survival which is limited to no more than 289 sqaure km. For this purpose, JTEF evaluates the importance of each area as the habitat of the cats, assess the impact of a development project (tourism infrastructure, firm land improvement, etc.), and make a recommendation to the relevant agencies for minimizing the impact to the habitat. JTEF also recommend the authorities to introduce a total volume control of visitors who are getting more and more penetrating into the habitat, and a control on wild cat watching /photography.

3. "Living with the Iriomote Wild Cat" Project
JTEF conducts educational programs on the small island's (population of 2,300 people) in the schools called "Living with the Iriomote Wild Cat." The programs are conducted to train the teachers and help them understand how to convey the importance of the Wildcat in the habitat to the youth. JTEF also develop education toolkits which are innovative and suitable for practical use at school teaching.

Projects Implementation Structure

JTEF based in Tokyo established its field office named “Yamaneko Patrol” (“yamaneko” means wild cats in Japanese) in Iriomote Island in April, 2015. JTEF employed a young staff as the project manager in charge of whole projects in the island. He had worked as a core member of night patrolling for preventing roadkill for 4 years.
He mainly works for managing the night patrol team, negotiating harmonization between the land-use and fragile ecosystem with outposts of the national government, local governments and local business sector, training and supporting school teachers for conservation education, collecting local information and finding ever-changing conservation demand. There is a technical advisor of JTEF in Iriomote Island, who is a leading expert of Iriomote Cats who earned a Ph.D. in studying the social ecology of Iriomote cats.
The HQ of JTEF provides the field office not only financial and logistics assistances but also technical assistances particularly legal advice on conservation laws and regulations, planning conservation education program, and drafting technical reports to be submitted to the key agencies. It also joins in lobbying to the governments, communication with the key persons in terms of conservation work in the island and holding a big event in the island.
We believe that it is the most important to secure the running cost of the field office.

Our New Initiative

A. Urgent Patrol for Preventing Roadkill
It is getting more and more serious that some Iriomote cats tend to be inclined to bea near the road, presumably because they have lost their fear of human beings and cars. Such cats would be witnessed again and again, until unfortunately, it is hit by a car and killed.

To prevent such roadkills, JTEF proposes an urgent patrol at night as follows.

- Specify the road area to be patrolled based on the observations regularly collected by the outpost of Ministry of Environment
- Draw the special attention of drivers by setting up sign boards with light reflectors which alert drivers to recent cat observation areas and the patrolling zones
- To supplement this, also on the road-side fences/guard rails inside the patrolling zone, set up arrow signs that produce light via LED
- Patrol by car within the alert zones in order to show drivers 'We are watching you' to get them to slow down

B. Annual Awareness Event Held on “Iriomote Cat Day” April 15
The local government designated every April 15 as the “Iriomote Cat Day” in response to the recommendation of JTEF in 2015. JTEF holds an open event for the community and tourists to be alert and prevent the roadkill of Iriomote cats; discuss why the roadkill is increasing and what are the points for avoiding the accidents. This is also when the staff report on the surveys taken during the Night Patrols. For the 2018 event, JTEF invited a lecturer from Yakushima Island to talk about the 'Lessons Learned' there following the addition of the island to the World Natura Heritage list as the habitat and tourism pressures affected the island.

C. Roadside Maintenance of Vegetation
Iriomote cats sometimes hide themselves in the weeds on the roadsides then suddenly pop out into the road. In some cases, drivers would not see them and be too late to stop the cars, causing a fatality. So, JTEF plans to increase the efforts for removing the weeds on the roadsides using a powered grass cutter. The local government does some maintenance around the roads but unfortunately, it is not rotate fast enough to keep up with the growing grass, especially in the summer time.

Other species impacted by the conservation of this cat:

カンムリワシ (kanmuriwashi) Crested serpent eagle, Endangered Status
ヤエヤマオオコウモリ (Yaeyama ookoumori) Yaeyama Flying Fox, Vulnerable status
セマルハコガメ (semaru hakogame) Yaeyama yellow-margined box turtle, Endangered Status