Wildcat Tests Japan's Environmental Will

The Associated Press
Saturday, October 28, 2006; 10:00 PM

IRIOMOTE NATIONAL PARK, Japan -- The steamy, hazy jungle thrums with trilling insects, singing frogs and the steady gurgle of rushing water as we cut through thickets of head-high ferns.

Prowling out there somewhere in the emerald underbrush is the big prize of our safari _ one of the planet's rarest wildcats.

A cat so rare, it was discovered only in 1965. So threatened, only about 100 exist. So singular, it lives only on this 110-square-mile Pacific island. Yet the elusive Iriomote cat is more than just an endangered species.

Heroic efforts to save it from extinction symbolize an about-turn in Japan's long-tortured relationship with Mother Nature. Not only does the struggle underline the country's newfound determination to redress decades of environmental devastation at the hands of unbridled industrialization, it proves just how tough reversing the damage can be.

"The wildcat's barely hanging on," says our jungle guide, Maki Okamura, a scientist at the Environment Ministry's Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center. "Even if we lose just one, it has a huge impact," she says.

Spotting an Iriomote wildcat will be a long shot, not just because it has nearly died out.

The mottled, dark brown cat with its rounded, club-like tail is only the size of a house tabby, and the jungles of its namesake island are nearly impenetrable. But Okamura knows every fold in the forest and routinely stops to hunt for footprints, scat and other telltale signs as she blazes through the dank mangrove swamps, keeping one eye out for cats, the other for deadly Okinawan vipers.

One of Japan's southernmost points, coral-fringed Iriomote lies closer to the Philippines than to Tokyo and is known as Asia's Galapagos for its primeval tropical forests and one-of-a-kind wildlife.

The wildcat's scientific name _ Prionailurus Iriomotensis _ certifies its local roots, where it evolved as an isolated offshoot of mainland Asia's so-called leopard cat, another small cat unrelated to the true leopard.

For most of that time, outsiders steered clear of Iriomote's malarial swamps.

But after World War II, sugar cane farmers and cattle ranchers moved in _ as did scientists curious about sightings of a strange "yamaneko," or "mountain cat" in Japanese.

The discovery gave Japan a rare chance to redeem a dismal conservation record.

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