TAKETOMI, OKINAWA PREF. – It was by no means love at first sight for Kumi Togawa, 62, a wildlife activist who is trying to save the Iriomote wildcat.
Togawa’s first encounter with the rare species took place when she was forced to surrender her bedroom to accommodate a pair of the wildcats at her family home in Tokyo when she was a teenager in the late 1960s. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement but lasted for more than two years.
The cats had been brought home by her father, Yukio Togawa, a noted novelist who wrote about animals and who was effectively the discoverer of the Iriomote wildcat.
Just a few years earlier, he had proved the existence of the previously unknown species by collecting bones and fur on Iriomote Island, which, like the rest of Okinawa, was under U.S. occupation at the time.
The pair brought to the Togawa family’s home were the first Iriomote wildcats ever to be kept in captivity. Living with the wildcats was not a pleasant experience, she said.
“They stank, and they would bare their teeth with a growl if I tried to approach them,” Togawa recalls. The cats lived in a cage installed in what had been her bedroom. “I have no fond memories,” she said.
In the late 1990s, she created a wildlife conservation group that has now become the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, but she didn’t set foot on the island until 2007, a few years after her father’s death.
Two years later, she launched an initiative to save the wildcat by restricting development projects that threatened its habitat and urging careful driving to prevent them from being struck by cars.
The wildcat is endemic to Iriomote, situated near the southern tip of the subtropical Okinawa region. With a population now hovering around 100 or so, it is classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While the discovery of the new species would be expected to thrill conservationists, it also posed a dilemma.
In those days, expectations for Okinawa’s eventual return to Japanese rule were mounting, and hopes for a better economic future were growing. Economic development, rather than nature conservation, was the priority.
A British researcher outraged the islanders by suggesting they relocate to another island to save the habitat of the wildcats.
“Everybody got angry after being told to leave the island,” said 86-year Iriomote resident Nobuko Ikeda.
Before the conservation-development battle, Yukio Togawa was a popular figure among the islanders, Ikeda said. But the relationship gradually withered.
Meanwhile, road and other infrastructure projects continued to erode the cats’ habitat, with the first wildcat death caused by a road accident was reported in 1978. Last year alone, drivers killed six cats, setting a record high.
With the residents’ help, Togawa has launched patrols of Iriomote’s roads to urge drivers to slow down.
This May, Togawa visited southern Iriomote’s Hamieda Beach, where, in 1965, the first Iriomote wildcat was captured alive by junior high school students. The school later handed over the preserved bones and fur to Togawa’s father, who would declare it a new species.
At the beach, however, there is no memorial to commemorate this watershed episode, and few of the local inhabitants living there now apparently know much about the incident.
To keep the wildcat preservation issue alive, Togawa visits local schools and talks to the children. She tells them to think about how wildcat traffic deaths can be prevented.
“If the people understand how wonderful the ecosystem that sustains wildcats is and how important it is for them, it will surely be possible to find ways to increase human wellbeing while preserving wildlife,” she said.