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Iriomote's wildlife helped by local children and ecologists

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-05-18

Iriomote is a treasure of beautiful flora and fauna. Located south of Naha, the beautiful island is the second largest within the Prefecture. It distinguishes itself from the rest of the Okinawa islands with its undeveloped jungle interior, presenting nature lovers with lush green mountains, sub-tropical plants, and waterfalls. Over 90% of the island is covered with virgin forest, and high levels of rainfall enable many tropical species to survive. It is also home to the Urauchi River, cascading through dense mangrove forests. Upstream is the Maryudu waterfalls, which attract nature lovers from all over Japan. The Nakama river, located on the east side of the island, meanders through 6 kilometers of mangrove trees on both of its banks. It is also lined with an area of Yaeyama palm trees, Okinawa's only true indigenous palm. All of this is protected by law under Japan's National Park system, making Iriomote the only island within Okinawa Prefecture that is totally designated as a National Park Area.

The uniqueness of the island has brought together many of the local tour operators on the island to form Okinawa's first Eco-Tours Association. Visitors are able to see much of the natural areas by kayaks, canoes, and foot trails. Endemic species to the island also draw many interested eco-tourists, hoping to get a glimpse of some of the island's rare plants and animals.

One of the most famous of these rare animals is the Iriomote Yamaneko (Felis iriomotensis), which was only recently reported as an unknown species in 1965. The very shy cat can only be found on Iriomote, and hides in the jungles of the island most of the time, occasionally coming in contact with humans.

Unfortunately, meeting with humans has proved to be fatal in some instances. Cars accidentally hit and kill the cat about three times a year. Although the number seems minimal, it is actually a major concern, because the cat's population is estimated to be at less than a hundred. It is the job of the Iriomote National Park Office, along with the Environmental Agency, to protect the endangered cat from becoming extinct. "If the problem with collisions increases, it could become serious," said Gen Itani of the Environmental Agency.

In order to help create awareness about the threat of cars to the Iriomote Yamaneko, the agency started a public campaign, lasting from December 2 until February 30. Some of the initiatives of the campaign included signs and patrols, asking drivers to drive at moderate speeds, and to be cautious when driving. The environmental agency also got children involved in the campaign, holding a poster competition for elementary and junior high school students. Ninety six entrees were received and put on display, of which three from each age bracket were selected for awards. "We are also planning on hopefully using one of the entrees for an actual campaign poster for the Iriomote Yamaneko," said Itani.

Other ecologists, along with Itani, have also contributed to the first Eco-Tourism Guide Book, explaining the different rare species of Iriomote and the unique eco-system of the island. The book was published recently to provide more information for visitors looking for nature tours and wanting to explore Iriomote's wilderness. It was also written to help create more awareness for endangered species, including the Yamaneko. A percentage of the profits will also go to the Iriomote Eco-Tours Association.

Another endangered endemic species of Iriomote is the Semaru hako game (Cuora flavomarginata evelynae). It is a tortoise that can only be found on the islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote.

It is imperative that we all realize the importance of protecting these rare species. Their survival can be of great value to both Iriomote's unique eco-system and to the economic potential of the island's eco-tourism industry.

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