Iriomote cat: legends and threats



by LORENZO CIOTTI

Iriomote cat: legends and threats

The Iriomote cat lives exclusively on the Japanese island of Iriomote. It is considered a living fossil by many biologists for not having changed much from its primitive form. Due to its exclusivity, it is one of the most endangered cat species in the world, given that its population is less than 100 specimens.

The 292 square km Iriomote Island is located at the southern tip of Japan's Ryukyu archipelago, 200 km east of Taiwan. The island is mountainous and covered in subtropical rainforests of evergreen deciduous trees, while dense mangrove forests line the estuaries.

The highest peak reaches only 470 m in altitude. This endemic cat is found near the water throughout the island, including on beaches and farmland. Just avoid the more populated areas. Unfortunately, it shows a preference for an area of coastal forest located outside the protected area, where the only road on the island has been built.

Barely 100 or so of this species survive due to habitat destruction, persecution and reckless hunting. Although the Iriomote cat was declared a Japanese National Treasure in 1977, human pressure continues to pose a serious threat.

A third of the island has been declared a reserve. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has classified the Iriomote cat as a Threatened Species, very close to extinction. Since this species does not have enough commercial value, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species only expressed that international trade should be strictly regulated, and placed this animal in Appendix II.

Feral domestic cats compete with Iriomote cats for food, but at present there appears to be no interbreeding problem between the two species. Hybridization would dilute the Iriomote cat's gene pool and pose a long-term threat to the integrity of the species.

However, proposals have been expressed to eradicate all feral cats from the island. The Japan Environmental Agency has set up feeding programs for native cats. Since 1979, domesticated chickens have been provided at 20 foraging sites.

However, this has caused various problems, as cats now regard farmed poultry as a natural food source. In 1983 the Iriomote cat began to attack domestic chickens near village houses, leading to conflict with the owners. Furthermore, a certain number of these animals are killed along the roads.