Iriomote wildcat
The entire archipelago of Japan was declared a Biodiversity Hot Spot in 2005 because it is rich in unique animal and plant life and because this unique animal and plant life is threatened by the encroachment of people.

Japan’s great biodiversity can be attributed to: 1) the fact that Japan is comprised of many islands, which often have their own unique self-contained ecosystems; 2) the islands stretch over a wide variety of climates, with different species often living in each climate zone; and 3) Japan’s links to the Asia and the mainland were via three diverse regions: a) Siberia, b) Korea and China, and c) a chain of islands that leads to Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Through the Edo period (1603-1868) the hunting of animals and birds was strictly controlled and wild animals prospered. During the Meiji period, beginning in 1868, the controls were lifted and wild animals suffered. Some became extinct. These days Japan seems to be making up for years of environmental neglect with a newfound concerns for nature and animals.

Man-made environments are sometimes almost as rich in wildlife as natural ones. Japan’s rice paddies have their own ecosystems. Dragon flies and frogs , for example, thrive in the paddies and irrigation ditches and provide food for large animals such as birds and fish.

Websites and Resources

Animals in Japan: Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/japan ;Japan Animals Blog /japan-animals.blogspot.com ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan hubpages.com/hub/japanfacts ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive Endangered Animals in Japan: Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/japan ; List of Extinct Animals env.go.jp/en/nature ;Iriomote Cat tigerhomes.org/wild-cats/wc-iriomote-cat ; National Geographic on the Iriomote Cat nationalgeographic.com ; Animal Info on the Amami Rabbit animalinfo.org ; Edge of Existence on the Amami Rabbit edgeofexistence.org ; Extinction of the Japanese Wolf wolfsongalaska.org/Wolves_Japan Dinosaurs Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum dinosaur.pref.fukui.jp ; Dino Paradise dino-paradise.com ; Fossil World watacchi.com

Links in this Website: ANIMALS AND ENDANGERED ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ALIEN ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BEARS, DEER, SEROW AND WILD BOARS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TANUKIS, FLYING SQUIRRELS, SMALL MAMMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SNOW MONKEYS (JAPANESE MACAQUES) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EAGLES, SWANS, CROWS AND BIRDS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CRANES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; IBISES AND CORMORANTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SNAKES, FROGS, LIZARDS AND TURTLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BEETLES, LAND CRABS AND INSECTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PLANTS AND FORESTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; GIANT SQUIDS, SHARKS , THE SEA AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; WHALES, WHALING AND DOLPHIN HUNTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PETS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EXOTIC PETS, BIRD FIGHTS AND BEETLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DOGS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DOG BREEDS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Japan: a Biodiversity Hotspot

The islands that make up the Japanese Archipelago stretch from the humid subtropics in the south to the boreal zone in the north, resulting in a wide variety of climates and ecosystems. About a quarter of the vertebrate species occurring in this hotspot are endemic, including the Critically Endangered Okinawa woodpecker and the Japanese macaque, the famous “snow monkeys” that are the most northerly-living non-human primates in the world. Japan has a relatively high diversity of amphibians as well, with 75 percent being endemic to the islands. Urban development has had some of the most significant effects on the Japanese wilderness, as are introduced exotic species like the Indian grey mongoose, the Siberian weasel, and the large mouthed bass. [Source: Conservation International Biodiversity Hotspot]

VITAL SIGNS: 1) Hotspot Original Extent (km²): 373,490; 2) Hotspot Vegetation Remaining (km²): 74,698; 3) Endemic Plant Species: 1,950; 4) Endemic Threatened Birds: 10; 5) Endemic Threatened Mammals: 21; 6) Endemic Threatened Amphibians: 19; 7) Extinct Species: 7; 8) Human Population Density (people/km²): 336; 9) Area Protected (km²): 62,025; 10) Area Protected (km²) in Categories I-IV*: 21,918. “Recorded extinctions since 1500. *Categories I-IV afford higher levels of protection.

Encompassing more than 3,000 islands of the Japanese Archipelago, this hotspot includes the land area of the nation of Japan (roughly 370,000 km²). In addition to the four main islands — Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu — Japan includes a number of smaller island groups, including the Ogasawara-shoto (the Bonin Islands and Iwo or Volcano Islands), Daito-shoto, Nansei-shoto (Ryukyu and Satsun Islands) and the Izu-shoto. Japan is located at the intersection of three of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and the slippage of these plates generates forces that result in numerous volcanoes, hot springs, mountains and earthquakes.

Japan stretches from around 22̊N to about 46̊N latitude, from the humid subtropics in the south to a temperate zone in the north. This latitudinal range, and the country’s mountainous terrain (about 73 percent of Japan is mountainous, the highest point being the 3,776-meter Mt. Fujiyama) contribute to Japan’s widely varying climate. While the central mountain area of Honshu is one of the snowiest regions on Earth, the Pacific side of Japan is remarkably dry. Yaku-shima, just south of the southern tip of Kyushu, is one of the wettest places on Earth, with annual rainfall of over 5,000 millimeters in some places.

Japan’s vegetation ranges from boreal mixed forests of Abies (fir), Picea (spruce) and Pinus (pines) on Hokkaido (and at high elevations in Honshu and Shikoku) to subtropical broadleaf evergreen forests and mangrove swamps in the south. High elevations on Honshu and Shikoku support alpine vegetation, while subalpine vegetation and natural beech forests are distributed throughout the region. The subtropical island chains in the south of Japan support a flora and fauna different from that of the main islands and hold many endemic species.

Animal Habitats in Japan

Hokkaido wilderness
Most native animal species such as bears, wild boars, tanukis, and badgers are adapted for life in the forest. These days you see very few wild animals in Japan. The forests are almost devoid of life.

Many animals in Japan have adapted to paddy agriculture. Among the forms of wildlife that thrived in rice paddies until chemical pesticides and fertilizers became widely used were egrets, herons, cranes, storks, ibises, frogs, snakes, fish, snails, clams. dragonflies, aquatic insects, shrimp, crabs and shrimp,

The modernization of rice paddy agriculture has made the paddies less accommodating to animals. Things like the replacement of open canals with underground drainage pipes and periodic draining of the paddies have made the paddies easier for farmers to work but have taken away the water that the animals need to live.

See Monkeys, Wild Boars, Bears

Rare Animals on Small Islands in Okinawa

Amami rabbit
The Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture) and the Satsuna Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture — a chain of 200 islands stretching for 1,000 kilometers between Kyushu and Taiwan — are especially rich in unique plants and animals. The number of plant species per unit area is 45 times greater than the rest of Japan due to the way species can evolve independently — separated from other species — on islands.

There are two large gaps in the Ryukyu Island chain: 1) the northern gap between Yakushima and Amami islands; and 2) a southern gap between the islands of Miyako and Okinawa. The plants and animals in either side of theses gaps tend to be very different form those on the other side. On the northen side of the northen gap, located in the Tokara Strait — and called the Watase Line after early 20th century biologist Shozaburo Watase — the plants and animals are virtually the same as those found in Kyushu and the other main islands of Japan while those south of the gap are markedly different. Similarly the islands south of Okinawa near Taiwan have many animals and plants similar to those in Taiwan because when sea levels dropped during ice ages many were connected to Taiwan and the Asian mainland.

Bonin flying foxes are among the endangered animals in the Ogasawara island. When lemon and agave production was introduced to the islands the bats began eating these and neglecting their role in spreading the seeds of rare plants on the island. Now the bats are considered a pest by farmers and are threatened by feral cats. An effort is being made to round up feral cats and ship them to Honshu.

Extinct or Near-Extinct Animals in Japan

Japanese river otter
The Japanese otter is one of Japan's most endangered animals. The last recorded sighting of one occurred in a river in Susaki, Kochi prefecture in 1979. Once common even around Tokyo, Japanese otters were fond of eating shrimp, crabs and fish. Their probable extinction is attributed fishing nets, crab keels and the concreting of riverbanks where they made their homes.

Tufted puffins were once found all over Hokkaido. Now they have largely disappeared from the area because of fishing nets that ringed much of Hokkaido and strangled the birds. The short-tailed albatross has been nearly hunted to extinction. So too with the ezo-kuroten sable, a species native to Hokkaido.

The Japanese sea lion is now extinct. The last one was seen on a Korean settlement on the island of Takeshima after the Korean War.

Mikado-chozame sturgeon, a species of sturgeon believed to have become extinct in rivers in Japan, has been bred in captivity by scientist at Hokkaido University. The achievement not only is good for the species and returning them to the wild but is also for people who want to raise the fish for caviar. Only a few of the fish exist in the wild on Sakhalin Island in Russia.

There have been calls for the protection and breeding of rare species but funding for such initiatives has been minimal. The Bon fruit bat is the only mammal native to the Ogasawara Islands. In 2009 a special 14 hectare protection zone was set up for the endangered species. The islands have many unique species of land snails.

Iriomote Cats

Iriomote cats have been designated an endangered species. Only about 100 are believed to be left, all of them living on 282-square-mile Iriomote island in Okinawa. They are one of the world's most endangered cats and were only discovered in 1965 and confirmed as a unique species in 1967, making them the last cat species “discovered.” They closely resembles cats that lived three million years ago and is thought have developed from mainland Asia’s leopard cat.

Iriomote cats are solitary, nocturnal animals. About the size of house cats, they are dark, mottled brown in colored and have a rounded club-like tail. They eat lizards, fruit bats, birds, snakes, crabs, fish and insects and are equally comfortable in forests, in the trees or on the beach. They prefer coastal regions and areas around streams and rivers. The make dens and give birth in the hollows of large tree trunks and usually don’t eat like many cats do by holding their prey with their fore paws, an adaption that seems to have come from spending a lot of time in trees.

Iriomote cats typically breed in February and March and again in September and October. Males typically roam a territory of two or three square kilometers while females move in area of one square kilometer. Females typically give birth to four kittens. There dens are typically six feet off the ground.

Iriomote cats look a lot like house cats and were at one time eaten as a delicacy. They are threatened by loss of habitat, accidental trapping in crab traps, stray dogs, and inbreeding with domestic cats and competition and diseases from domestic cats. About one or two cats die every year from being run over by cars. Counting cats is done with photo traps.

In 2007 Iriomote cats were moved from the endangered list to the critically endangered list. To help Iriomote cats survive the Japanese government has made one third of Iriomote island into a national park aimed at protecting the cat. Some would like to see development such as dams and roads banned to protect the cats even further.

Effort to protect Iriomote cats include raising awareness by putting images of the cat on everything from buses to coffee mugs and putting up signs to ask drivers to drive slowly and keep a watch out for the cats. There is a 24 hour hot line for reports of cats hurt in road accident and rehabilitation center for injured cats. Despite the fact that few people have actually ever seen an Iriomote cat, the cat has helped draw 700,000 tourists to island, a 14-fold increase from the 1970s.

The tsushima yamaneko is a wildcat indigenous to Tsushima Island in Nagasaki Prefecture. It has a pale yellow body marked by leopard-like patterns, weighs three to five kilograms and is 50 to 60 centimeters from the tips of its tail to its nose. There numbers of decimated by loss of habitat die to development and struck by vehicles. There are believed to be to be only 80 to 110 left in the wild. A few more are in zoos,. A captive breeding program at the Fukuoka Zoo in Fukuoka had managed to produce a couple of offspring.

Amami Rabbit

the fate of many
Amami rabbits
The Amami rabbit is found only on two small southern islands, Amami Oshima and nearby Tokunoshima between Kyushu and Okinawa. Primarily a nocturnal forest species, it is believed to be an ancestral form of rabbit that evolved before its fast-hopping, long-eared cousins. Measuring 39.7 to 53 centimeters from head to rear end, with a two to three centimeter tail and weighing: two to 2.9 kilograms, it is squat and has a long snout, small ears, tiny eyes that glow red in the dark, and a stout body supported by short legs. The feet are equipped with long, sharp claws used for digging. It feeds on shoots and grasses from spring to autumn and acorns in the short winter.

The Amami rabbit lives in dens they dig themselves. Females give birth to one baby at a time, in separate dens with the entrances sealed by mud. The babies are born blind and helpless and spend the first two months in the den. The rabbits are threatened by loss of habitat and mongooses, brought to Amami Oshima island to eradicate the poisonous habu snake. A few thousand live on Amami Oshima and few hundred live on Tokunoshima.

“The Amami rabbit has some of the most primitive characteristics in living rabbits. Its ears, hind feet and tail are short, while its curved claws are formidably heavy and strong. It is also unusual in its methods of communication, which involves both vocalizations and the beating of the ground with its hind limbs. At dusk, just before becoming active, it appears at the entrance of its burrow and sends its calls ringing throughout the valleys. [Source: Canon, Wildlife as Canon Sees It ad]

The Amami rabbit prefers dense forests, ranging from sea level to mountaintops. There are estimated to be 2,000 to 4,800 Amami rabbits on Amami-oshima Island and 120 to 300 on Tokuno-shima Island. Their numbers have been reduced by severe habitat loss and introduced predators.

New Endangered Animal List in 2012

In August, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported, the Environment Ministry compiled a revised Red List of animals and plants, dividing them into nine groups according to their respective degree of extinction risk. The list officially classified nihon-kawauso, or Japanese otter, as an extinct species. It also named hamaguri clams and gengoro, or diving beetle, as endangered species for the first time. It was surprising to see the list expanded to include such familiar living things. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 1, 2012]

Does this mean we can't eat hamaguri clams anymore? Although the list is not legally binding, the Species Preservation Law prohibits hunting species whose population is dwindling. The law also restricts development projects in areas where such species live. Hamaguri clams are not covered by the law, meaning fishermen are not banned from gathering them. At any rate, a large amount of hamaguri consumed in Japan are imports. To increase the volume of domestically grown hamaguri, it may be necessary to impose stricter controls on collecting them as a food resource.

Can the status of the animals and plants on the Red List change? The populations of the sea lion (todo), and white-tailed eagle (ojirowashi) has rebounded. The revised Red List has lowered these species' degree of extinction risk. The list retained the status of toki, or Japanese crested ibis, which had been classified as "extinct in the wild." This year, several ibises were born in the wild, marking the first such births in 36 years. The ministry explained why it decided to retain the protected bird's status, saying, "It is necessary to closely watch whether the species will be able to breed in a stable manner." It is hoped the ibis' status on the Red List will be lowered when the list is revised again in five years.

Japanese River Otter Classified as Extinct

In August 2012, Jiji Press reported: “Japanese river otters, which were registered as one of the nation's special natural treasures, have been designated as extinct following the Environment Ministry's revision of its Red List of endangered species excluding fish. The otter is the first Japanese mammal to be classified as an extinct species that was confirmed alive during the Showa era (1926-1989). The last sighting in Japan of a Japanese river otter was in Kochi Prefecture in 1979. The ministry therefore concluded the species was extinct and changed its endangered species status Tuesday. [Source: Jiji Press, August 30, 2012]

Japanese Wolves

Wolves were common in Japan until the end of the 19th century. There were two kinds: the Japanese wolf, which ranged across Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku; and the Ainu wolf, which ranged across Hokkaido and was revered by the Ainu as a howling God. Both kinds of wolf are now extinct.

Japanese wolves were smaller than wolves found on the Asian mainland. They sometimes had yellow fur and tails with rounded tips. Their main prey was deer. Most scientists regard them as a subspecies of wolf found in Eurasia and North America. Others regarded them as a completely different species.

Wolves were never vilified in children's stories in Japan like they were in the West. In fact wolves were deeply revered. Shinto shrines sometimes featured them a guardian gods, farmers worshiped them as deities and gamblers carried wolf fangs for good luck. People who lived in the mountains where wolves were most often seen called the animals “mountain dogs.” Many of these people worshiped wolf spirits as protectors of crops from hares, deer and other pests.

There were many reports of wolf attacks especially in April and May when mother were raising their young. During the great Teno famine in 1834, when corpses were piled up in great numbers and buried in shallow graves, wolves began digging up the corpses and eating them. They developed a taste for human flesh and, joined by stray dogs, began attacking children and weakened adults. Soldiers had to be called in to protect villagers.

Extinct Wolves in Japan

The Ainu wolf disappeared at the end of the 19th century. The last known Japanese wolf was captured in Fukui Province 1901. Another was found in 1905 in the mountains near Higashiyoshinomura, Nara Prefecture, and clubbed to death by loggers.

The wolves became extinct due to hunting, diseases such as distemper picked up from dogs, loss of and habitat due to human population increases. Many were shot and poisoned after they began feeding on livestock because their natural prey, deer, were shot by farmers as pests.

In 2000, a high school principal said he photographed a canid resembling a Japanese wolf in the mountains of central Kyushu. Experts who studied the photographs said the animal had characteristics peculiar to the Japanese wolf such as a round tip on its tail.

There has been some discussion of introducing wolves from China or the Korean peninsula to Japan, if for no other reason to control the exploding population of sitka deer, but there is little chance that this will happen soon.

Discover of “Extinct” Trout in Japan

In December 2010, a freshwater fish — the Kunimasu trout “thought to have been “extinct” for 60 years — was rediscovered in Saiko Lake in Yamanashi Prefecture near Mt. Fuji. It was thought the fish only inhabited Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest lake, in Aita Prefecture in northern Japan, where the fish was last seen there in 1948. It had been thought the trout died out as a result of the introduction of highly acidic water from a river into the lake.

One of the redisoverers of the Kunimasu trout was a weird television personality named Masayuki Miyazawa who goes by the name Sakana-kun (“Little Mr. Fish”) and wears a strange fish hat when ge appears on television and makes public appearances. Fisherman in Saiko Lake had been catching Kunimasu fish for years without realizing there was anything special about the fish. The trout in Saiko Lake are thought to be descendants of fish that hatched from about 100,000 eggs brought there from from Lake Tazawa in 1935.

Black bass lay eggs in water less than 1.5 meters, Some places with dams have had success getting rid of the fish by dropping water levels in lakes to below 1.5 meters which causes the bass eggs to die while having relatively little impact on other aquatic life.

Illegal Animal Trade in Japan

Many illegally sold wild animals end up in the Japan as well as the United States and Germany. Single back lizards and other protected reptiles are sometimes mailed from Australia to Japan where they sell on the black market for up to $5,000. Rare radiated tortoises and ring-tailed lemurs from Madagascar have been stolen from research centers and children’s zoos in Japan offered for sale on the illegal animal market through pet shops.

Four baby orangutans were once seized from the apartment of a former pet shop employee in Osaka. Five people, including the pet shop owner and the people who smuggled the animals into Japan, were arrested on charges of smuggling rare animals. The animals were purchased on the black market, sedated and brought into Japan in their carry-on luggage. The animals passed through customs at Kansai Airport without being discovered.

There is strong demand for rare reptiles in Japan. In December 2002, a gavial was seized by customs officials at Kansai International Airport. In August 2005, a pet shop owner and the head of a tropical garden were arrested for trying to sell rare false gavial crocodile hatchlings. In May 2004, three Japanese men were arrested in South Africa with 37 endangered armadillo-girdle lizards, which sell for around $3,500 each in Japan. There only believed to be around 2,000 to 3,000 of them left in wild due to over hunting for the pet trade.

Tortoises and turtles are particularly sought after because their association with long life. Some offer rare star tortoises from India and Pakistan can fetch between $20,000 and $25,000 in Japan. In January 2011, two Japanese men were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport for trying to smuggle 50 live endangered tortoises and turtles — hidden in snack food boxes — into the United States.

There are illegal auctions for wild birds’such as white eyes, Japanese bush warblers and blue and white flycatchers — caught in Japan. Most of the birds are caught in forests using mist nets that are hung between trees by poachers. The birds are frequently bought by bird fanciers who value them for their songs. In some cases poachers are paid ¥1,500 for a bird that is bought at an action for ¥3,000 and ultimately sold to a bird fancier for ¥10,000.

In May 2007, 40 slow lorises — lemur-like creatures from South Asia that are a protected species under the CITES international treaty — were seized by customs officials at Narita Airport. The animals were found in small boxes brought in by a 38-year-old man on a flight from Bangkok. The animals were alive when seized but about a dozen died later.

There is lax enforcement against smuggling animals and the penalties are light if you get caught. There is a thriving underground market and a number of websites that offer rare animals. In some cases you can get animals in shopping mall pet stores. Authorities don’t put a lot of emphasis on catching animal smugglers. They insist they have more important things to worry about.

Animal Cruelty in Japan

More than 100 rabbits killed in the Kanto area during a wave of bunny murders in the summer of 1997.

In 2001, a 44-year-old Tokyo bank employee was charged with killing 10 cats with a crossbow. The man said he the killed the cats because they messed up his garden but police found a toy mouse and other cat toys though to have been used to lure the cats on to his property.

In June 2010, a 40-year-old man was sentenced to six months in prison for fatally shooting a deer in Nara Park with a crossbow.

Elephants and Ivory in Japan

In June 1997, at a CITES (Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species) conference, a secret-ballot pushed by Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe ended the eight-year ivory ban. According to the deal most of the world’s stockpiled ivory would be sold to Japan in a tightly controlled operation to make sure no poached ivory entered the market.

In June 2007, three African nation—South Africa, Botswana and Namibia — were given permission to sell 60 tons of ivory to Japan by CITIES.

About 2.8 tons of ivory from African elephants was confiscated at a port in Osaka in August 2006 from a cargo ship that sailed from Malaysia. The tusks were found in 608 pieces and came from the equivalent of 130 elephants. There were also 18,000 pieces of ivory cut in blocks to make seals. It was the largest seizure of ivory ever. Government officials had difficultly deciding whether to destroy or preserve the confiscated ivory. Smuggled ivory is usually incinerated but the cache was so large incinerating it was regarded as wasteful. A company president who was supposed to receive the shipment received a one-year suspended prison sentence and was fined ¥800,000.

Most ivory in Japan is used to make signature stamps. see Elephants

Image Sources: Japan-Animals blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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