BY SHINGO FUKUSHIMA
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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TSUSHIMA, Nagasaki Prefecture--Twenty minutes' walk uphill through a forest in the southern part of Tsushima island, a surveillance camera stands and stares into the growth, waiting for signs of movement.
It has been nearly two years since a camera in the Uchiyama district here caught an image of a Tsushima yamaneko (leopard cat)--a national natural treasure that had previously been thought by some to have died out in this part of the island off the western coast of Japan.
But experts remain quietly hopeful of seeing the specimen or others like it again, and eventually reviving the population of the endangered animal throughout the area. The cat is ranked as 1A in the Red Data Book of Japan, which means it is critically endangered.
In the 1960s, there were about 250 yamaneko living across the whole island. In the northern part, which is separated by a canal, the population has dwindled to roughly 100 as a result of damage to its habitat, traffic accidents and attacks by predatorial wild dogs.
The cat was thought to have died out in the south by 1984. But in a startling discovery 23 years later, a camera photographed a yamaneko on separate occasions in the same district near the town of Izuhara. Environmental researchers surmise it was the same cat.
Following the "rediscovery," the Environment Ministry's Tsushima Wildlife Conservation Center, Nagasaki Prefecture and the city of Tsushima embarked on a joint mission to survey the yamaneko population in the southern region. They installed 27 infrared cameras in and around the Uchiyama district to monitor movement.
Shusaku Moteki, a 29-year-old staffer at the center, says his heart races when he removes films from the cameras and sends them to be developed each month. To his ongoing disappointment, however, he ends up staring at endless images of Tsushima martens, weasels, scaly thrushes, pale thrushes and oriental turtle doves.
"Once the camera captured some Self-Defense Forces members carrying rifles as they went on a training exercise," he laughed.
Moteki also searches for the cat's droppings, which have a particular smell, size and shape. If he finds fecal matter that can't be easily identified, he sends it away for DNA testing.
The Environment Ministry plans to add more cameras to the search, but given there have been no sightings since 2007, it is feared the number of the cats in the district is extremely small.
Experts are divided over how best to protect the fragile population of the subspecies variety.
Shinichi Hayama, director at Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University in Tokyo, advocates releasing northern yamaneko to the south.
"If this situation continues, yamaneko in the south will be extinguished. We don't have much time," he said.
On the other hand, Masako Izawa, professor of animal ecology at University of the Ryukyus in Nishihara, Okinawa Prefecture, urges caution.
"The population in the north is declining. If the number drops further, yamaneko in both parts of the island will face extinction altogether," she said. "Yamaneko in the south could have a larger territory, which might make it hard to find them. We have to make a more concerted effort to find them first."
The Environment Ministry has been supervising a project to artificially breed the species in captivity in the nation's zoos. It launched the project at Tsushima Wildlife Conservation Center and Fukuoka City Zoological Gardens in Fukuoka, before extending it to zoos in Yokohama, Tokyo and Toyama. The project now includes about 30 yamaneko.
Joining the undertaking this fiscal year is Sasebo City Subtropical Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Nagasaki Prefecture. Director Mitsunori Egashira is ambitious about its chances: "We will work hard to protect rare animals in cooperation with other zoos."
The ministry is considering building a facility in Tsushima where it can train yamaneko born in captivity to catch prey before returning them to the wild in the southern part.
The 2007 discovery could influence its decision.
If yamaneko bred in captivity are released into the habitat of their wild counterparts, the territorial disputes that would inevitably result could create an ecological imbalance.
"It's good news that yamaneko have been found again in the south after all this time it was thought to have died out there," says an expert. "But that means new problems now have to be considered."(IHT/Asahi: May 25,2009)
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