Rare Japanese Wildcat Edging Closer to Extinction

Tony McNicol in Tokyo
for National Geographic News
August 29, 2007

Cars, hotel development, and the threat of a deadly frog fungus are pushing one of the world's rarest wildcats closer to extinction, conservationists warn.

This month Japan's Ministry of the Environment reclassified the Iriomote cat as "critically endangered" on the government's Red List of threatened species.

This change in status is the latest indication of the dire predicament facing the unusual feline, experts say.

The wildcat is found only on Iriomote Jima, a tiny, tropical, mountainous island on the southern end of the Ryukyu archipelago, which stretches from Japan to Taiwan (see map).

The Iriomote cat has been considered at-risk since it was discovered in 1967, and surveys in 1985 and 1994 estimated that only about a hundred animals remain.

Now a three-year survey, still in progress, is providing evidence that the cat's already small population is shrinking, researchers say, most likely due to habitat loss and roadkill deaths.

"If we think about how to stop destruction of the cat's habitat, prevent traffic accidents, and take other measure we can stop the extinction," said Masako Izawa, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus who has been studying the cat since 1982.

"The reclassification to 'critically endangered' is a warning."

Roadkill

About the size of a large house cat, the Iriomote cat has a long, dusky brown pelt that helps it blend in to its jungle surroundings.

The feline was originally considered a unique species, but recent DNA studies have suggested that it might be a subspecies of the Southeast Asian leopard cat.

The cat likely arrived on Iriomote Jima when the island was joined to the Asian continent about 200,000 years ago. Due to the small available range, the wildcat has probably never numbered more than a few hundred animals.

Continued on Next Page >>


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