National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Of cats and rabbits: UNESCO World Heritage candidate caught in a bind over tourism drive

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

UNESCO designates World Heritage sites in order to preserve cultural or natural assets deemed significant to humanity. The idea is to maintain these assets for future generations, but UNESCO itself doesn’t pay for maintenance. It is up to the countries where the sites are located and UNESCO will remove the certification if they’re not maintained properly.

Japan is upfront about seeking World Heritage status for cultural and natural assets in order to boost tourism, a purpose UNESCO doesn’t encourage. The issue with this purpose is whether attracting visitors to help domestic business works against UNESCO’s primary aim, which is conservation. For several years, Japan has wanted to gain World Heritage status for a group of islands situated between Kyushu and Okinawa due to their unusual fauna. Last year, UNESCO rejected a request to grant status to the islands, but the government still wants to win approval, hopefully in 2020.

One of these islands is Amami Oshima in Kagoshima Prefecture. Two years ago, the tourism ministry suggested to the mayor of Setouchi, a town on the island with a population of around 8,900, that he should try and attract large cruise ships. The lure could be tours that explore the island’s unique wildlife and, while the ministry hasn’t said so out loud, UNESCO’s approval of the island as a natural World Heritage site would be valuable in that regard. Last month, the mayor rejected several proposals related to the cruise ship idea made by a study group, saying that he could not gain the understanding of residents.

Nevertheless, the Environment Ministry has been trying to bring about changes that it says would make it easier to meet UNESCO criteria for World Heritage status. One plan is to “manage” the number of cats on Amami Oshima, since they are believed to prey on the indigenous Amami rabbits that would need to be preserved in order to satisfy UNESCO. The ministry plans to cull 3,000 feral cats (no neko).

In April, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun published an article about the scheme, which has been criticized by cat lovers who don’t see the need for mass extermination. Then an article appeared on Asahi Shimbun’s Ronza website, saying that complaints against the scheme were baseless. Predictably, animal welfare groups reacted negatively to the opinion piece. Confusing the matter further, the Asahi Shimbun published a “scoop” in its evening edition on March 25, arguing that the cull scheme was not necessary since the population of Amami rabbits is increasing, not decreasing. Although this controversy has no impact outside Amami Oshima, since it has something to do with cats, which are popular at the moment, it has attracted wider media interest.

Journalist Eriko Sasai, who wrote the Bunshun article, published a follow-up piece for the online version of the magazine on June 30. She explains that the Environment Ministry wants to catch feral cats in traps and then transport them to a holding center where for around one week they will be offered up for adoption. Cats who remain unadopted for more than a week will be put down. The goal is to catch 300 cats a year, and the ministry estimates there are between 600 and 1,200 feral cats on the island, so presumably by factoring in reproduction rates, the ministry thinks it will reach its cull target in 10 years.

But Nozomu Kojima, a professor at Kawaguchi Junior College, has a problem with the ministry’s definition of “feral cats.” Under the new Animal Protection Law, it is illegal to kill stray cats (nora neko) in the wild, since they may actually be pet cats that live part of their lives outdoors. The exception is when local authorities claim a compelling reason to kill strays, such as cats threatening wild bird populations. In that case the killing must be reported. Feral cats, however, are categorized as being harmful and, thus, can be killed by local authorities and will be treated independently from strays.

Kojima claims there are no real difference between strays and feral cats, since the latter are essentially the former in a wilder state. It is believed the Environment Ministry created the category of feral cats so as to make it easier to exterminate any cats they find.

The ministry is presumably worried about the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which advises UNESCO with regard to granting World Heritage status to natural assets. When UNESCO rejected the earlier request for status of the islands in question, it was partly because IUCN mentioned “alien species” that can harm the indigenous animals on the islands, and the ministry assumes that feral cats fall under that heading. Under the ministry scheme, stray cats are not specifically targeted.

Obviously, the plan has inconsistencies, but the Asahi Shimbun blew it all to pieces when it asked the ministry for more data. The ministry estimated that the Amami rabbit population was somewhere between 2,000 and 4,800 in 2003, and that this population as of 2015 had increased to between approximately 15,000 and 39,000. Moreover, an animal welfare group estimates that, thanks to veterinarians working on a volunteer basis on the island for about a year, about 90 percent of the stray cats have already been neutered, and to this group there is no real difference between strays and feral cats. In any case, cats don’t seem to be the problem. As one nature tour guide told Sasai, Amami rabbits have more to fear from urban development, of which tourism is one form. More are killed by cars than by predators.

Despite these revelations, the ministry plans to continue with its cull scheme until 2027 because once a bureaucratic organ decides a course of action, it’s almost impossible to change it. And that seems to be the impetus at work. Winning UNESCO approval and boosting Amami Oshima’s tourist potential are just gravy. The primary benefit of the plan is that it gives the Environment Ministry something to do to justify its budget.

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