The Iriomote cat - picture by The Ministry of Environment
The Iriomote cat (Credit: The Ministry of Environment)

Speaking of kawaii, cats are huge all over Japan. They are also adored pet since the Edo era. And a Japanese tiny tropical island is home to a very unique and endemic wild cat, the Iriomote cat.

1230 miles south from Tokyo and less than 130 miles from Taïwan, the Iriomote island (西表島) is as wild and mysterious as its fauna and flora are unique. The second largest island of the whole Ryukyu archipelago is covered by 90% of primeval forest of evergreen broad-leafed trees, black mangroves and linked to its neighbor Ishigaki by the largest coral reef of Japan.

Near the Kanbire and Mariyudu waterfalls

Iriomote’s fragile ecosystem

To protect this fragile environment, the Ishigaki-Iriomote National Park was created in 1972. In addition it was also designated as a Forest Ecology Conservation Area. Iriomote island is home to some rare species of the Yaeyama islands such as the Kishinoue’s giant skink. Others are typical to tropical Asia such as the Yellow-margined box turtle or the crested serpent eagle.

More endemic, two types of plants (Asarum yaeyamensis and Chikusichloa brachyanthera) only grow in Iriomote island. Last but not the least, the island is home to Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis, the wild Iriomote cat, 西表山猫 or イリオモテヤマネコ in Japanese. And the Yamamaya (as the local dialect calls it) might have not been the only feline mammal on the island according to some local stories. Yet no evidence was found to confirm the existence of a greater cat the size of the panther.

Into the jungle of Iriomote
Into the jungle of Iriomote
Into the jungle of Iriomote
An endangered species

According to the scientists, the ancestors of the Iriomote cat arrived at a time when Japanese islands and the Asian continent were joined, 10 million years ago. Then, after several divisions, the Ryukyu islands definitely became separated from mainland and isolated 20 000 years ago. Thus, many species got themselves confined in the island of 284 km² (109 miles square).

Into the jungle of Iriomote

Only discovered in 1965 by the animal expert Yukio Togawa, the case of the Iriomote cat is quite unique. Subspecies of the leopard cat, it is nonetheless described as if it is part of a distinct species. Because it was confined on the tiny island for 2 millions years, its shape remains quite primitive, scientists observed.

Nowadays its population has been decreasing because of habitat degradation and traffic accidents. Since 2008, the Iriomote cat has been registered as as critically endangered on The IUCN Red list (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources).

How to protect the Iriomote cat?

Since it was declared as one of Japan’s national treasure, in 1997, many efforts have been made to protect the Iriomote cat. Today, only a hundred of them remain on the island. Traffic accidents are the main issue. Along the only road running around the island, many “ヤマネコ” (yamaneko) warning signs the road are displayed at special designated spots where some the cat has been observed. And locals and tourists must drive at “island speed” (25 mph).

The Iriomote wildlife center also encouraged people to call them in case of an accident with a wildcat or to report if one have been seen. Each year, several cats are killed on the road.

There is only one road on Iriomote

In 2015, events were organised to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its discovery. The good coexistence with the residents was one of the main topic.“Iriomote cats are our treasure, and we need to protect them for the future. We want to let people inside and outside the island know that this community will develop by living together with the wild cat”, declared Taketomi Mayor Eicho Kawamitsu, the chairperson of the special committee set up for the occasion.

Along the years other actions have been taken on the island such as registration of all domestic cats to prevent mutual infections. Stray cats have also been vaccinated and sterilized. Still habitat degradation due to human expansion and tourism development remains a concern.

Another wildcat exists in Japan. Prionailurus bengalensis euptilurus, or the Tsushima leopard cat, is also a subspecies of the leopard cat. Unlike the Iriomote cat, which is endemic of the island it is named after, the Tsushima cat can be found in Tsushima island (Kyushu, Nagasaki prefecture), but also in Korea, Manchuria and Siberia.

Around Iriomote

Even if Iriomote is the second largest island of the Ryukyu, activities are limited due to the thick jungle forest. Still it takes easily two or three days to discover the beauties of the island.

Cuora flavomarginata or yellow-margined box turtle Cuora flavomarginata or yellow-margined box turtle

The easiest option is to rent a car, as the buses are only running twice a day on the main road. Rental cars companies provides tourists maps and useful advice. Going around the island by car is a pleasant time : sometimes you have to stop to let a Yellow-margined box turtle (or Cuora flavomarginata) cross the road. When the sun has already shine, driving slow to prevent hitting an Iriomote cat, you can spot a giant bat in a tree or some red crabs sneaking across the road.

Mangrove cruises and wild boar sashimi

Concerning the jungle, it is highly recommended not to be alone wandering around. Several tours are available to go hiking through the jungle, admire the waterfalls, or discover the mighty mangroves trees and their emerged-roots by canoeing or cruising. Among the many rivers which cover the island, Urauchi is the biggest and largest in Okinawa prefecture. Others cruises are also organised on the Nakama river.

 During the cruise on Urauchi river

Cruise on Urauchi river Mangroves use their roots as filter to get fresh water
During the cruise on Urauchi river Urauchi river

Urauchi river

Finally when it is the right season, from November to February, Iriomote is the unique place (on the world!) where it is possible to taste the wild boar sashimi with mashed garlic. Because Iriomote’s wild boars are also an endemic species, not conveying the diseases pigs usually do, their raw meat could be eat the Japanese sashimi way.

Wild boar sashimi

How to get there?

To get to Iriomote island (西表島), one must depart from Ishigaki island, the main island of the archipelago. The ferries takes 40 or 50 minutes to reach the home of Iriomote cat, depending which harbor they are aiming at (Ohara in the East or Northern Uehara). Then it is better to rent a car since buses are not running so often.

Discover more:

Some videos taken by the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau (OCVB) and locals actually show the Iriomote cat in motion, here and there. Also you can observe a video made by the Japan Tiger & Elephant Fund in which a mother Iriomote cat and its kittens are crossing the road.

Last fall, Kijitora neko tv made a story about Iriomote island and its cats. While NHK news offers a photo gallery of the special wild cat.