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Authorities at the little-known island of Teuri in northern Japan have taken a novel approach to tackling its stray cat problem with the offer of free ferry trips to anyone who will take the felines off their hands.

The Haboro Town Office, Hokkaido, which administers Teuri Island, said the stray cats were jeopardizing native seabird population.

It said in a bid to address the issue, and promote tourism, it would provide a coupon for a round-trip ferry ride to the island from the ferry terminal in town for anyone willing to foster a cat.

“The biggest aim of the program is to reduce the stray cat population that has grown too large, without having to cull them,” said Taishi Yamada, an official in charge of the environment at the municipal government.

Estimated at more than 200, stray cats have long preyed on seabird chicks. The island, 28 km off the northern tip of Hokkaido and one of Japan’s largest seabird havens, has an estimated 1 million seabirds.

In 2012 it introduced a municipal ordinance requiring cat owners to register their pets and holding them accountable for any harm to the island’s seabird habitat.

Bird species on the island targeted for protection include the Rhinoceros auklet and Black-tailed gull, whose numbers nose-dived to about 1,000 in 2013, from 300,000 three decades ago. Common murres, another species, numbered in the thousands years ago but only 20 chicks were born this year.

Along with Black-tailed gulls, Rhinoceros auklets, a close relative of Puffins, are especially vulnerable as they form colonies on top of sea cliffs that can be accessed by cats. An estimated 800,000 Rhinoceros auklets inhabit around 400,000 nests on the island, making it home to the world’s largest colony of the species.

Tanaka said the Environment Ministry set up electrified fences around seabird colonies in 1995, but they were ineffective and removed by 2007.

Under the new program, which is supported by a group set up last December comprising the Haboro municipality, animal rights groups, the Environment Ministry, the Hokkaido government and the association of Hokkaido veterinarians, stray cats are domesticated by the animal groups, which then seek owners for them.

Asahiyama Zoo in the city of Asahikawa, the nation’s northernmost zoo, is also helping domesticate the cats.

Municipal officials hope the program will help bring more people to Teuri, which has a population of 350, to see its beauty.

The Haboro Town Office and the Environment Ministry’s regional office in Haboro are accepting foster offers.

“I’ve visited the island many times, but each time I go, the sight of a swarm of Rhinoceros auklets flying back home to the island at dusk is breathtaking,” said Tanaka. “It’s beyond words.”

The ferry coupon, worth about ¥9,000, is being offered until the end of this year, and can be exchanged for ferry tickets until January.

Tanaka encouraged people to visit during the warmer summer months.

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