January 22, 2021

Japan’s Rare Island Wildcat and World Heritage Site Nomination

Craig T. Donovan

Since Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galápagos Islands in 1835, ecologists have known that island ecosystems are irreplaceable treasures of nature. The central and southern Ryūkyū Islands of Japan are no exception. These scattered islands host a tropical Eden rich in unique biodiversity. However, these islands also face serious environmental threats. In February 2019, Japan nominated four of these islands (the Islands) for inscription on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List. In addition to the islands of Amami Ōshima, Tokunoshima and northern Okinawa, Japan’s nomination included Iriomote Island, located off the coast of Taiwan. This remote island is home to one of the world’s most endangered felines, the Iriomote cat.

The Iriomote cat or yamaneko is a subspecies of the Asian leopard cat and resembles a large, gray tabby with black and brown spots, amber-colored eyes surrounded by white markings, black and white stripes on its head, and rounded ears with large white spots on back. Iriomote cats are mainly nocturnal, solitary hunters and inhabit the island’s mountains covered by dense subtropical evergreen and mangrove forests, and lowland aquatic and agricultural areas. Iriomote cats are agile climbers and swimmers and well adapted to various prey. Currently, the cat’s population is approximately 100 individuals and declining. This decline is primarily due to habitat loss from residential and commercial development, subsistence farming, and road construction that obstructs the cat from migrating between its core habitat areas. Island tourism, traffic collisions (roadkill), ensnarement in hunting traps, predation, contagious disease transmission from domesticated animals, and the presence of invasive species on neighboring islands also seriously threaten the cat’s survival.

Legal Protections and Conservation Measures

The Iriomote cat is protected under both international and Japanese environmental law. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List designates the Iriomote cat as “critically endangered.” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, https://rb.gy/tulcdb. In addition, the cat is listed in Japan’s Red Data Book of extinct and endangered species. Ministry of the Environment Japan (MOEJ), State of Japan’s Environment, https://rb.gy/crlacv. Japan also designated the cat as a Special Natural Monument Species under the Law for Protection of Cultural Properties in 1977 and a National Endangered Species of Wild Fauna under the Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 1994. Bunka-chō Kunishiteibunkazaitō dētabēsu Iriomoteyamaneko [Agency for Cultural Affairs Government of Japan, Nationally Designated Cultural Properties, Etc. Database, Iriomote Cat], https://cutt.ly/0h7abw7; Endangered Mammals of Japan, Iriomote Cat, https://cutt.ly/Eh7hf3E.

Moreover, MOEJ and Iriomote’s municipal government protect and administer portions of the cat’s habitat in Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park. The park includes terrestrial and aquatic areas of Iriomote Island and other constituent islands. Iriomote’s municipal government has also implemented additional conservation measures. The government constructed “eco-roads” with underpasses to reduce car collisions by allowing the cat to safely reach core areas of its habitat, placed rumble strips and wildcat crossing signs in prominent locations alerting drivers to reduce speed in areas frequented by the cat, and established a telephone hotline for drivers to easily inform authorities when traffic collisions occur. See Okinawa: Iriomoteyamaneko jikoshi, kakosaiaku ni narabu [Okinawa Iriomote Wildcat Accident Deaths, In Line for Worst Ever], Asahi Shinbun Digital, https://rb.gy/7hbmvm. Local government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also monitor invasive species on nearby islands, require strict domestic animal control, and conduct public awareness campaigns about the cat.

Japan’s UNESCO Nomination

To further prevent the loss of the Iriomote cat and other unique regional biodiversity, Japan nominated the Islands for consideration as a World Heritage Site (WHS) under international law. See Japan’s Nomination, https://cutt.ly/3hgb2z7. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention’s ratification and implementing guidelines set forth the WHS listing process. Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Nov. 16, 1972, No. 15511, 1037 U.N.T.S. 151. The IUCN acts as the World Heritage Committee’s (WHC) advisory body by evaluating nominated natural sites. Once a site is evaluated, the WHC makes the final decision on a nominated property’s inscription. For WHS listing, the Islands must (1) constitute natural or cultural heritage having Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) by meeting at least one of ten selection criteria in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (Guidelines); (2) satisfy the conditions of integrity for natural properties; and (3) have an adequate management and protection plan. Guidelines, Art. 2 ¶¶ 49–119 (WHC.19/01 10 July 2019).

Regarding the first requirement, OUV means “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries” and “be of common importance for present and future generations of humanity.” Guidelines, Art. 2 ¶ 49. Accordingly, “the permanent protection of this heritage is of the highest importance to the international community as a whole.” Id. Japan asserts that the Islands have OUV under Criterion (x) of the Guidelines. Criterion (x) requires that the Islands “contain the most important and significant natural habitats for . . . conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of [OUV] from the point of view of science or conservation.” Id., Art. 2, II.D ¶ 77. The Islands have OUV because they best exemplify Japan’s rich biodiversity in the region, have high irreplaceable value for species’ protection; including many endemic, globally threatened, and evolutionarily distinct species; and contain important habitat for biodiversity conservation. Nomination, § 3.3(a) at 170. Although constituting only a small fraction of Japan’s total land area, the Islands support a large proportion of Japan’s wildlife. Approximately, 57 percent of terrestrial vertebrates including 44 percent of species endemic to Japan and 36 percent of globally threatened vertebrates in Japan inhabit the Islands. The Islands also support approximately 1,819 different types of vascular plants. Id., § 3.3(b) at 170–71.

To satisfy the second requirement, natural sites for inscription must show wholeness and intactness of their natural heritage and attributes (integrity) and meet a specific condition for each selection criterion. Guidelines, Art. 2, II.E ¶¶ 87–88, 90, 95. To satisfy the integrity standard, the Islands must have all elements necessary to express their OUV and an adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes of the property’s significance. Any adverse impacts to the Islands must also be considered. Furthermore, the Islands must contain habitats for maintaining the most diverse fauna and flora that characterize the region and ecosystems under consideration. Id. at ¶¶ 88, 95. Japan asserts satisfaction of this requirement because the Islands consist of mountains and hills and have intact and contiguous subtropical rainforests with old growth trees that provide stable habitats for approximately 90 percent of native, endemic, and globally threatened species in the region. Nomination § 3.3(c) at 171. Japan has also placed the Islands under the strictest legal protections. In addition, like in the Iriomote cat’s case, the national and local governments have collaborated with NGOs and local communities to implement various conservation measures to mitigate or prevent threats to the Islands’ biodiversity. Id.

Lastly, the Islands must be adequately safeguarded through long-term legislative, regulatory, institutional and/or traditional protection and management measures. See Guidelines, Art. 2, II.F, ¶¶ 96–98. For natural sites under Criterion (x), the IUCN also considers whether the Islands have delineated boundaries and space for habitats or species and/or buffer zones for effective protection and an appropriate management plan to safeguard the property for present and future generations. Id. at ¶¶ 99–119. The Islands are designated for long-term protection as Special Protection Zones or Class I Special Zones and/or Forest Ecosystem Reserve Preservation Zones managed by MOEJ and the Forestry Agency, respectively. Because many endemic and threatened species’ habitat is located near residential and industrial areas, Japan has designated buffer zones under a Comprehensive Management Plan to balance human livelihood with biodiversity protection. For the Iriomote cat, Japan has implemented a protection and recovery program that monitors the cat’s conservation status, rehabilitates injured and sick cats, and requires strict registration of domestic animals. An intergovernmental Regional Liaison Committee also coordinates the Islands’ biodiversity management with local stakeholders. Nomination § 3.3(c) at 172, 177.

In conclusion, the accolade of WHS status could raise greater international awareness of the need to protect biodiversity like the Iriomote cat and provide Japan with access to UNESCO preservation funding and global project management resources for the Islands’ conservation. One drawback, however, is that Japan may have to implement additional conservation measures and monitoring to ensure that the Islands’ environment and threatened biodiversity, like the Iriomote cat, are not overrun by increasing development, tourism, cruise ship travel, and port construction that may inevitably occur from WHS recognition. Presently, Japan’s nomination remains on the Tentative List awaiting on-site evaluation by the IUCN.


Craig T. Donovan


Craig T. Donovan is an attorney/adviser in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor, Division of General Law in Washington, D.C.