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5 Endangered Living Monuments Only Found in Okinawa

CRISIS - Mass Extinction by Adam Asmat Asia Jul 31st 20235 mins
5 Endangered Living Monuments Only Found in Okinawa

Japan encompasses such a variety of geography and climates that it can be useful to treat different prefectures as almost distinct countries. The Okinawa Prefecture is made up of a group of humid subtropical Pacific islands – once called the ‘Galapagos of the East’. Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs designates valuable and iconic animals as ‘natural monuments’, placing them under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. Due to the small islands’ sizes, Okinawa is home to many endangered living monuments.

5 Endangered Living Monuments Endemic to Okinawa

1. Iriomote Cat

First on the list of endangered living monuments endemic to Okinawa is the elusive Iriomote cat, found only on Iriomote Island. Technically a subspecies of leopard cat, it is known locally as yamamayaa (forest cat), as they live primarily in the island’s subtropical forest habitats. It is rare to find a carnivore species on such a small island due to an expected lack of prey, but the Iriomote cat’s uniquely varied diet allows it to survive against the odds. The cat has become an icon of the area, being immortalised in multiple statues guarding various bridges around the island.

It is classified by the IUCN Red List as “critically endangered”, as the already declining population comprises fewer than 250 mature individuals. The population’s major threats are predation by dogs, destruction of habitat, and traffic accidents. Due to their cultural importance and declining numbers, the Iriomote cat was designated a natural monument by the Okinawa government in 1972 and part of their habitat has been designated as a wildlife protection area.

2. Okinawa Rail

The Okinawa rail is endemic to Okinawa Island itself – particularly the northern forested Yanbaru region, explaining its Japanese name: Yanbaru kuina (Yanbaru rail). The medium-sized, almost-flightless bird nests and feeds on the ground but roosts in trees. It is recognisable by its bright red bill and the notably wide variety of loud calls it emits during the mornings and evenings on the island. 

Okinawa Rail

Okinawa Rail. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The species is classified as “endangered” by BirdLife International due to its small range and population, which is around 480 mature individuals. It is threatened by habitat fragmentation caused by road, dam, and golf course construction. Introduced predators such as cats, dogs and the small Asian mongoose also threaten the fragile population. Luckily, like the Iriomote cat, the Okinawa rail is legally protected in Japan as a natural monument and Yanbaru became a national park in 2016, where traffic calming has been introduced to some areas to reduce the number of birds killed on roads. One such measure is the creation of Okinawa rail awareness signs to remind drivers that they are in the species’ habitat. Additionally, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment created a 10-year action plan to stabilise the island’s rail population. 

3. Ryukyu Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle

Designated as a natural monument in 1973, the Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle is endemic to the Ryukyu Islands, living in North Okinawa, Kume Island, and Tokashiki Island. It can grow to around 5-6 inches and feeds on worms, insects, and fruit. They are often found with algae growing on their shells, indicative of their humid habitats. The head and neck are covered with beautiful orange and red lines, and as a result, the species is coveted by turtle collectors and is often sold as pets. They have become so popular that poaching for the pet trade is one of their main threats. 

Unfortunately, there has been little effort to conserve this species. Despite being classified as “endangered” by the IUCN Red List, there is no clear consensus on the number of extant individuals, and they are sorely in need of a population survey. Although this species has clearly not been given considerable conservation effort, the Turtle Conservancy maintains a group of individuals in California and has successfully produced offspring in captivity.

Ryukyu Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle

Ryukyu Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

4. Ishikawa’s Frog

Ishikawa’s frog is a visually striking green frog with brown spots which is endemic to Okinawa Island’s Yanbaru region. Commonly labelled as “Japan’s most beautiful frog,” a rare blue morphotype of this natural monument is often sought out by photographers. Their spotted pattern helps them to camouflage amongst the mossy banks they inhabit.  

Due to predation by the island’s invasive mongoose species, the frogs’ population saw serious declines. Fortunately, the number of mongooses in the Yanbaru region has dramatically decreased due to an eradication program initiated by the Ministry of Environment in 2000. As a result, the species appears to be starting to recover in range and population size. Also, like many species in the Yanbaru region, Ishikawa’s frogs are at high risk of becoming roadkill. Some initiatives which have contributed to their recovery include the addition of “wildlife steps” to roadside drainage ditches to allow trapped wildlife to climb out, and placing cautionary road signs around their home range.

5. Yanbaru Long-Armed Scarab Beetle

Yet another species endemic to Okinawa Island’s Yanbaru region is the Yanbaru Long-armed Scarab Beetle. The males have evolved their characteristic long forelegs to help climb trees and compete against other males. The larvae live in hollow trees and feed on decaying plant matter for three years before maturing. Not only is it considered the rarest species of the Cheirotonus genus, but it is also thought to be one of the rarest beetles in the world – classified as “endangered” by the IUCN Red List.

Yanbaru Long-Armed Scarab Beetle

Yanbaru Long-Armed Scarab Beetle.

Due to their beauty and rarity, poaching represents a major threat to the species. Poachers use fruit-filled traps to collect and sell these beetles, along with giant Okinawan stag beetles, in the illegal pet trade. Since being labelled a natural monument in 1985, there has been a concerted effort to protect these insects. Bug catching is common pass time in Japan, so Okinawans have published warnings to avoid disturbing this species in local newspapers and flyers. In addition, a group called ‘The Joint Council to Prevent Poaching of Yambaru Long-Armed Scarab Beetles’ was created in 2001, and the government conducts annual anti-poaching patrols with villagers around the Yanbaru region to discourage illegal activity. 

You might also like: 10 of the World’s Most Endangered Animals in 2023

About the Author

Adam Asmat

Adam Asmat has a bachelor's degree in Zoology from the University of Manchester, where he was an editor for the university's zoology newsletter. After having worked as an Urban Ranger, working to conserve and restore wildlife around Manchester, he is now undertaking a marine research internship at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. His interests include conservation, climate activism, and welfare biology.

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