TOKUNOSHIMA, KAGOSHIMA PREF. – Three municipalities on a remote island in Kagoshima Prefecture are midway through an unprecedented project to neuter all 3,000 resident felines in order to protect native rabbits. The rare bunnies are designated as a special national treasure.
Only around 200 Amami rabbits are thought to inhabit the island of Tokunoshima in Kagoshima Prefecture, which has a human population of 23,000. The rabbits are at risk of being attacked and killed by stray cats.
“Domestic cats have a hunting instinct, and they hunt when they become feral,” said Harutaka Watanabe at the Environment Ministry’s nature conservation office on the island.
“There are no carnivorous mammals on the island, so native rabbits are not so vigilant,” said Watanabe, 30.
Culling the strays is not a realistic option for the island, which is part of the Amami and Ryukyu islands. The area is seeking recognition as a World Natural Heritage site.
Osamu Minobe, a 60-year-old islander from the town of Isen, said the isle would not qualify as a heritage site if the slaughter of thousands of cats takes place.
As a solution, the three municipalities on the island launched the project in November 2014 in collaboration with an animal protection organization based in Hyogo Prefecture.
Municipal officials set traps to capture stray cats. Veterinarians from Doubutsu Kikin (Animal Fund) neuter the cats and notch their ears before they are released.
Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry has also started a project to capture cats in the mountains that prey on the island’s rabbits. The ministry also neuters the cats and temporarily keeps them in a shelter run by the three municipalities on the island until new owners are found. The owners are required to keep the cats indoors.
“I hope we can change the residents’ mindsets, encouraging them to keep their cats indoors,” said Hikaru Akiyama, 29, who is in charge of the shelter.
So far, some 2,200 cats have gone through the process, and Amami rabbits are being seen in greater numbers already. A staff member at Doubutsu Kikin said it is important to continue the effort or the situation would revert to that five years ago, as the cats reproduce quickly.
Under the project, cat owners can have their pets neutered for free, as many are reluctant to pay for the operation.