The Japanese wolf. The Bonin thrush. The Japanese otter and sea lion.
All are species that once flourished on the Japanese archipelago, driven to extinction by overhunting and habitat loss.
Japan's native wildcats aren't on this tragic list, but they're teetering on the brink.
Don't confuse these native species with the domesticated felis catus: Japan’s population of nearly 9 million domestic cats is growing every year and the country is currently in the midst of a so-called “cat boom.” Consumer appetites bear that out: There were only three cat cafes in all of Japan in 2005 — a number that was estimated to be around 600 in 2021. Meanwhile, in the 2010s, Japanese authors wrote more books on cats (5,400) than on Buddhism or baseball.
Only about 100 animals of each of Japan’s two wildcat species survive today, putting both on the brink of extinction along with a growing list of more than 3,700 other species nationwide, a trend that conservationists say is crucial to slow not just for the sake of Japan's environment but for its cultural heritage as well.
The two remaining cat species live in very different environments and climates, but they do share one thing: an origin story.
First there is the chameleonic Tsushima leopard cat, resident of the western island between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula. Then, there is the gourmand Iriomote cat, next-door neighbors with tropical paradise Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture.
Both are roughly the same size as domesticated felines and are descendants of the leopard cat, a species native to continental Asia. During the last Ice Age, Asia was connected to Japan via land bridges due to lower sea levels. Researchers estimate the species crossed over and diverged from the leopard cat 100,000 years ago, only to be left on their current islands when sea levels rose.
Humans have lived alongside the Tsushima leopard cat for a good portion of its long history — although it’s been anything but harmonious.
“Most people assume that wildcats live deep in the forest, but actually they prefer the village, the garden and the rice field — and bother locals so much that people have a very bad relationship with them,” explains Takashi Shibahara, chief conservationist at the Tsushima Wildlife Conservation Center.
The spotted Tsushima leopard cat is distinctive for its seasonal shapeshifting. They are plump in the winter and slim in the summer, with patterned coats that change along with the seasons. For this reason, it is very difficult for rangers to identify and track them. Nonetheless, Shibahara estimates that there are around 90 to 100 cats currently living on the island.
“We hear that there used to be around 300 (approximately a century ago), so it’s our mission to restore the population to 300,” Shibahara says.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, the population had plunged to 80 due to rampant roadkill incidents, diseases from domestic cats and wild dog attacks. The Tsushima cat disappeared altogether from Tsushima’s more populated lower island, where locals say the cats used to reside.
Well over 1,000 kilometers to the south, the Iriomote cat is remarkable for its resilience: It occupies the smallest habitat of any wildcat on Earth. Iriomote has an area of less than 300 square kilometers — Tsushima is over two times bigger — a constrained environment that has led the Iriomote cat to have a human-esque appetite for everything.
“Most types of cats prefer mice or fish and eat primarily one food source,” says Wataru Ishihara at the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center. “But the Iriomote cat wouldn’t be able to survive if it did that on tiny Iriomote Island. So it eats everything — crabs, frogs, snakes, lizards and birds. It’s a really unique characteristic.” Unlike domestic cats, Iriomote cats are not afraid of water and can even be seen swimming in rivers from time to time.
Their population is also estimated to be around 100. Ishihara says that the population has stopped dropping over the last 10 years — although the center doesn't know how many wildcats there used to be living on the island. Still, this tiny population marks the species as critically endangered. And neither the Tsushima nor Iriomote cats are able to grow their populations with any consistency because of one fatal reason, eclipsing all the rest: automobiles.
Indeed, the cats’ preference for the diverse food sources on offer in cities and towns puts them in close proximity to one of their biggest killers. Roadkill incidents wipe out nearly 5% of both species year after year. In 2022, for instance, four wildcats were killed by cars in Iriomote and seven in Tsushima. In the last dozen years, as many as nine in Iriomote and fifteen in Tsushima were killed by cars in individual years.
“Because the population is so small, this is huge damage to the species,” says Ishihara. “It’s the single biggest risk to the cats.”
Mixed bag of measures
Both islands are developing policies and improving infrastructure to counter roadkill incidents. In Tsushima, the government has installed warning road signs, constructed underpasses and created posters advertising safe driving on the island, Shibahara says.
“There are the most incidents in November and December, when the young kittens become independent and look for their own territory,” he says. “We are reducing the amount (of accidents) a little each year.” Accidents peaked between 2010 and 2015, but still number over five per year in recent years.
Iriomote has implemented a particularly aggressive policy campaign. Most of the accidents occur on the ring road that circles the island, so Iriomote has been attempting to make the route as roadkill-proof as possible. In addition to signs and underpasses, the island has been installing gutters and fences that prevent cats from flitting out from the forest onto the road. They have also built textured stripes that vibrate and alert cats of oncoming vehicles, and cut down roadside brush. The wildlife center launched a unique campaign to promote safer driving through the gamified app yuriCargo, where participants can collect reward coupons for driving safely.
Moving forward, roadkill incidents will continue to be the single biggest threat to both wildcat species. But human development and intervention have led to other challenges. On Tsushima, the deer population has swollen to between 40,000 and 50,000 — 10 times what conservationists view as a sustainable number, Shibahara notes. Deer traps, often illegal ones set up by residents, have taken out more than a few cats.
“The government has been successful at cracking down on illegal traps,” explains Shibahara. “We’ve seen fewer of those incidents, but we still need to reduce the deer population to its ideal number.”
Diseases spread from domestic cats are also a major threat to the Tsushima leopard cat, especially feline immunodeficiency virus (also known as FIV or “cat AIDS”), which could potentially race through the population. Currently three infected Tsushima leopards are in custody.
Meanwhile on Iriomote, tourism and economic development have become a growing threat by infringing on the cats’ already extremely limited habitat. The number of tourists visiting this tiny island is expected to double due to it recently being named a World Natural Heritage site as well as the development of a new resort.
“It’s crucial that tourists cooperate with safe driving,” Ishihara says. “But a portion of drivers still drive very quickly.” Iriomote has also installed cameras across the island to monitor injured cats and kittens who are not receiving proper care.
It’s clear that both islands need the perspectives of locals, drivers and visitors to continue to evolve.
“People viewing the Tsushima cat in a positive light is a very recent development,” explains Shibahara. “We’ve started to see the perspective change, and people want to do something for the cats. I would love for more people to prioritize our wildcats.”
A paradigm shift
Tsushima and Iriomote have used Japanese people’s love of cats to fuel support for these species on the brink of extinction. But Japan has over 3,700 other endangered species — a number recorded on the “Red List” that monitors the nation’s at-risk species, and one that is constantly growing. The loss of individual species can trigger broader ecosystem disruption. For instance, the extinction of the Japanese wolf played a role in the unhealthy explosion of the deer population and resulting damage to native vegetation.
In the most recent update to the Red List in 2019 — the next update will be published in 2024 — 40 species were added. A number of species have gone extinct in Japan in the 21st century, including native species of bats and butterflies.
The Environment Ministry explains that, while many endangered species decreased in number due to development and overhunting in the past, new challenges have emerged.
“In recent years, the rising number of endangered species — especially aquatic insects, amphibians and freshwater fish — is due to the decrease in rice fields and agricultural ponds due to human population decline and changes in farming approaches and techniques,” writes Honami Hayase, an official at the ministry’s Rare Species Conservation Promotion Office. Due to constrained budgets and population decline in rural areas, most regions lack the funding and human resources to carry out countermeasures.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Conservationists in China and Japan, respectively, have successfully bred some species, including the crested ibis and the rock ptarmigan, a type of grouse, in captivity and released them into the wild, helping those populations recover. Along similar lines, Tsushima has partnered with zoos in Kyushu to breed Tsushima leopard cats in captivity. Shibahara is currently training several cats to catch mice and run from danger.
“You can see wildcats at eight different zoos, which I recommend,” Shibahara says. “(Visitors) will develop a more sophisticated understanding and ... learn to support the cats.”
Ishihara says that while he is grateful for support for the Iriomote cat, there is a much broader biodiversity crisis at play. Lower biodiversity in Japan threatens to increase damage from the climate crisis and harm human industries like agriculture and tourism. Hayase also points out that in Japan, nature is inextricably linked with cultural heritage, from salmon in Hokkaido, to the snow monkeys of Nagano, to these wildcats.
“Not just our wildcats, but all endangered species are a global problem,” Ishihara says. “Maybe our wildcats can be an inspiration for people to start caring for the wild animals in their own areas."