The government has submitted a proposal to UNESCO for adding two islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, the northern part of the Okinawa Prefecture’s main island and a remote Okinawa island to the international organization’s list of World Natural Heritage sites. Gaining the heritage status for these sites should not be the ultimate goal. Irrespective of whether they make it on the list, both the national and local governments should fulfill their responsibility and do everything necessary to conserve the sites for the heritage of humankind while protecting the livelihood of local residents.
Pristine subtropical forests of evergreen, broad-leaved trees grace Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima islands of Kagoshima, Iriomote Island of Okinawa and the northern part of the Yanbaru area of Okinawa Island. These sites cover a total of some 38,000 hectares and their forests are home to rare species. In submitting the proposal to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the government said that these islands, after they were separated from the Asian land mass, saw distinctive evolution, giving rise to a variety of indigenous species such as the Amami rabbit, the Okinawa rail and the Iriomote cat, and that the sites are important from the standpoint of biodiversity due to the existence of these valuable endemic species.
Given these characteristics, the sites have universal value. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will decide whether to add them to its list in summer 2018, following on-site inspections. If the sites are put on the list, they will be the fifth area in Japan to receive World Natural Heritage recognition, following the Shirakami mountainous area of Aomori and Akita prefectures, Yaku Island of Kagoshima, the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido and the Ogasawara Islands of Tokyo.
In seeking to get heritage status for the sites, relevant authorities need to make serious efforts to protect their native species and habitats. One issue will be eradicating the effects of invasive alien species on their ecosystems. One species in question is the mongoose, introduced in the early 20th century to root out habu poisonous snakes in the Amami-Okinawa area — but which ended up preying on local indigenous species other than habu. Efforts since then to stamp out the mongooses produced some results but should be continued. The authorities also should be wary of the possibility that non-native plants may inadvertently be brought in by the U.S. military to Yanbaru.
Although the United States returned some 4,000 hectares of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Northern Training Area, which used to occupy an area of some 7,500 hectares, to Japanese jurisdiction in December, the jungle warfare training area is adjacent to forested areas in Yanbaru.
As a quid pro quo for the land return, the Japanese government has mostly completed six circular helipads, each 75 meters in diameter, inside the remaining area for use by tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft as well as conventional helicopters. According to an official of the Nature Conservation Society of Japan, the helipad construction has destroyed some habitats of the Okinawa rail and the Okinawa woodpecker. The official pointed to the possibility of non-native species attached to U.S. forces aircraft settling inside the heritage candidate site or such aircraft crashing inside the site.
It is also important for both the national and local governments to brace for possible unwanted effects on the Amami-Okinawa sites from a tourist boom that could follow their registration on the UNESCO list. It may even become necessary to restrict the entry of visitors. The authorities should promote ecotourism that enables tourists to observe the native fauna and flora without causing any damage. They should quickly work out rules needed to ensure both the development of local industries, such as agriculture, forestry and tourism, and protection of nature, in cooperation with local residents and industry associations.
Such efforts should not be limited to candidate sites for World Nature Heritage status. The government should work toward protection of woodlands near populated areas, known as satoyama, as important assets to be preserved for future generations. Wild boar and deer are increasing in numbers in unattended woodlands, leading to the deterioration or destruction of nature in such areas. They need to decide which administrative bodies will be responsible for satoyama conservation and develop a system in which local residents can willingly participate in the task.
After the Amami-Okinawa sites, no other areas in Japan are likely to pass muster for receiving UNESCO’s World Nature Heritage status. Japan meanwhile should consider placing more areas on the UNESCO list of biosphere reserves, known as “eco parks” in Japan. Making efforts for this listing is worthwhile since a biosphere reserve consists of a strictly protected core area, a buffer zone for environmental education and recreation, and a transition zone where development of communities in harmony with nature is encouraged.