The serene Urauchi river. Photo: Vikram Shah
The serene Urauchi river. Photo: Vikram Shah

Iriomote and its elusive mountain cat

Iriomote island offers remoteness, a massive nucleus of unforgiving vegetation, surrounded by high coral and whispers of the legendary yamaneko

It was on a train ride from Tokyo to Shimoda in Japan's Izu Peninsula when Jason, an Australian expat and one of those old Japan hands over whom the spell of Nippon was completely binding, mentioned Iriomote. 

“Mate, I've seen a bit of this part of the world, but there is nothing quite like the Okinawa Islands down south. Specifically, you've gotta get down to this island called Iriomote. Now that is the fair dinkum." 

“But there are a number of islands down there, right? What is so special about Iriomote?" I asked.

“It is still back of beyond, mate. Wild place. You gotta work hard to get there. Forest everywhere, raging falls and reef that begins literally from the shore. You might even get a glimpse of the elusive cat!" 

I was intrigued. 

*** 

Back in Tokyo, I began my research in earnest during lunch breaks at work. The “elusive cat" was the endemic Iriomote cat or yamaneko (mountain cat), a species discovered by the Tokyo zoological establishment only in the mid-1960s. Critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List, less than 200 of them are thought to exist in the 284 square kilometres of Iriomote. 

Researchers who had spent several years studying the cat had not yet seen one in the wild. In the island's local dialect, the cat is also called yamapikaryaa (one that shines on the mountain) and meepisukaryaa (one with the flashing eyes). 

I found myself getting sucked into the inevitable vortex of desktop research, manically scouring obscure hiking blogs for pictures of suspected paw marks and alleged scat. It was not easy finding definitive information. Given its small size (about the size of a large house cat, weighing less than 5kg), the Iriomote cat was, for long, thought to be nothing but a feral species of the ubiquitous housecat. This was until 1967, when it was first formally described by professor Yoshinori Imaizumi of Tokyo's National Museum of Nature and Science as a distinct species. 

Later, it was suggested that the cat was only a sub-species of the diminutive wild cat known as the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalenis) that is commonly found in the moist, tropical and subtropical forests of continental Asia. 

Influential genetics-based studies conducted by researchers Ryuichi Masuda and Michihiro C. Yoshida in the early 1990s appeared to confirm the sub-species thesis, suggesting that the Iriomote cat had the same mitochondrial DNA as the leopard cat. 

In a paper published in Zoological Science in August 1994, Masuda and Yoshida wrote that—based on gene sequence data—the Iriomote cat was estimated to have diverged from the leopard cat around 0.2 million years ago. They believed this finding to fit in nicely with the previously reported timeline of the geographical isolation of the Ryukyu Arc (comprising what are known today as the Okinawan Islands) from the Chinese continent. While this geographic barrier caused the development of unique morphological features in the Iriomote cat, the sequencing studies showed the genetic characters of the leopard cat and the Iriomote cat to be closely related. 

Such analyses compelled the IUCN to amend its classification to acknowledge the leopard cat as the parent species. But the debate is far from settled. The IUCN notes that the taxonomic status of the Iriomote cat is currently under review by its SSC Cat Specialist Group. 

The outcome of this classification goes beyond academic bragging rights. Its significance is outlined in a 1999 paper in the Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research, authored by P. Leyhausen and M. Plfeiderer, in which it is pointed out that conservation strategy and design is largely dependent on the IUCN's classification. The status of the cat as a mere sub-species may well affect chances to conserve what they consider to be a unique animal. 

Based on the results of a comparative study relying on skull measurements, Leyhausen and Plfeiderer had proposed that the Iriomote cat was not only distinct but also an ancient species, “a missing link, nearer to the common root of the cat tribe than any other extant species". 

The plot continued to thicken. 

*** 

A Mumbai-based friend was planning a visit to Japan in a couple of months’ time. I sold her the idea of kayaking on meandering rivers through evergreen forests, in the habitat of an extremely rare cat that has held zoologists in thrall for a few decades. Our initial plan of exploring Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the Kansai region (around the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara) was soon forgotten. We would rather go to remote Iriomote, 2,000km from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. 

Taxidermied specimen of the Iriomote yamaneko. Photo: Vikram Shah
Taxidermied specimen of the Iriomote yamaneko. Photo: Vikram Shah

On a typically crisp autumn day a week before departure, I went to look at the taxidermy specimen of the cat in the National Museum of Nature and Science in the sprawling Ueno Park. It could have been a quirk of the lighting or even the taxidermy technique, but the coat of the specimen appeared a lot lighter and less mottled than in the images of the cat I had seen on the internet. I could finally see why the Iriomote yamaneko was long suspected to be the feral cousin of the housecat. Up close in the museum, it looked distinctly un-leopard like. 

*** 

We flew first to Naha and then to Ishigaki Island, which is nearer to Taiwan than mainland Japan. After a night in Ishigaki, we boarded the hour-long ferry to the port of Uehara in the north of Iriomote. There was heavy cloud cover as we approached the terminal, and the endless hills behind appeared foreboding, an impenetrable blanket of deep, dark green. Our mood lifted substantially on spotting a cheerier shade of green as we stepped off the ferry—parrot green fish darting about the barnacles lining the quay. Jason seemed to be right about the reef’s proximity to the shore. 

It was a short walk from the ferry terminal to Kanpira-so, an inn run by a delightful old couple with broken English and warm smiles. We were given a set of hand-drawn and colour-stencilled island maps, painstakingly prepared by the unassuming proprietor and displaying a level of attention to detail that was affecting. When I mentioned the yamaneko and made a gesture to convey spotting, he broke into a wide, toothless grin and said, “Oooohhh, muzukashii, very difficult. If Vikram-san very, very lucky, he see yamaneko." 

We introduced ourselves to the other guests at the inn, a motley crew that could have been a walking-talking endorsement of the island’s varied delights. 

Portly Nakamura-san—wearing cargo shorts and a fanny-pack—was a shell collector. He had come to collect a special kind of star-shaped shell found on the Hoshinura Beach. Aiko-san was a keen scuba-diver from Osaka on her annual trip to what she considers the best dive-sites in Okinawa. Chihiro-san and his two companions—all wearing hard hats—were insect enthusiasts from Tokyo. 

When we spoke about hoping to spot the cat, our new friends all nodded gravely and said “Ganbatte!" (Good luck, or more appropriately, do your best.) I am yet to meet gentler obsessives. 

*** 

Under a sudden, smiling sun and after a simple breakfast of fish and rice, we trooped to a bus stop flanking the only main road—one that ran a ring around the island. Hata-san had told us about a “secret beach" called Ida in Funuaki village that could only be reached by boat. 

On the bus to the jetty, we took the front seats since we had heard that yamaneko had recently been sighted crossing the road at a couple of spots that were on our route. The cult of the cat was everywhere. All along the ring road, we saw yellow boards with a painted graphic of the yamaneko—heavily spotted, and looking definitely more leopard cub than housecat—warning drivers to slow down. 

Funuaki was little more than a few wooden structures around a pier. I poked my head into what must have been the village’s only eating joint and borrowed a snorkelling mask and a pair of flippers from a woman who materialized out of nowhere. The path to the beach was unmistakable, but we walked gingerly, spooked by guidebook warnings about the deadly habu snake. On Iriomote, even around the settlements, there is a pervading sense of being in the wild. One little turn off the ring-road or a paved path, and you begin to feel enveloped by forest. 

We walked into a vision of tropical paradise straight out of a tourist brochure for Thailand or the Philippines—white sand and an electric blue sea. Were we really in Japan? Low-lying, thickly forested hills—where the tree tops appeared to burst into little green mushroom clouds—on either end of the beach half-embraced to form a kind of sheltered cove. 

Bounding down the sand, I leapt and yelled in primal delight, clearly assuming that it was just the two of us around. Hearing muffled giggles behind me, I turned to see a group of young boys in dive suits and an elderly master valiantly trying, out of the famed Japanese politeness, to conceal their amusement. I think it was Paul Theroux who once wrote, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect." 

Once in the water, I skimmed over the reef in the shallows, barely managing to avoid kicking up coral dust. However, the drop in the shelf was steep, and all at once, I found myself clear, surveying the veritable kingdom just under me, instantly rediscovering a capacity for wonder that I had considered extinguished in the brave new world of social media overload. 

I counted at least 30 different kinds of fish—lurid showboaters, solitary swimmers, goggle-eyed gliders. There were also fish in varying shades of grey, black, white and brown, secure in their camouflage on the sea bed and in those parts of the reef that were showing signs of bleaching. It was only when I lost sight of the gently swaying reeds below did I come up for air and realize how far out I had swum. 

Back on land, I was snapped out of my aquatic reverie when my friend pointed out something on an area map painted on a board near the pier. Right next to the “You Are Here" legend was another prominent red dot—marked with the words “IRIOMOTE CAT SPOTTED HERE!" 

All sorts of questions popped into my head. But there was no one around to ask. 

Shadows fell while we were on the bus back to Uehara. The driving became perceptibly slower, no doubt to honour the warnings about cat crossings. We had dinner at a restaurant close to the inn and washed it down with fiery awamori, Okinawa's famed local spirit. 

As we ate and drank, the place slowly filled up with locals—fisherfolk, diving guides, road menders—all seemingly secure in their knowledge of this mysterious island and its ways. Again, I wanted to ask them a number of questions. Do you get lonely here? Have you never craved the bright lights of the city? Have you ever seen the yamaneko? But the language barrier was intimidating. 

By now, it was pitch dark. The night was starless, and we realized how complete nighttime in Iriomote could be. On the short walk back, I heard a rustle in a hedge lining the road and turned just in time to see a pair of blazing eyes. We looked over the hedge—a dog slinked back into the porch of a house. 

Back at the inn, we could make out the silhouette of the solitary Hata-san, enjoying a cigarette in a far corner of the drawing room. Everywhere, an air of quiet contentment. 

*** 

Early the next morning, we met Jimmy, who was to be our guide for our day-long kayaking and hiking trip. Jimmy used to be a jockey and had raced in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Hong Kong. During the drive to the starting point of our kayak trip on the Urauchi river, Jimmy essentially put paid to our chances of spotting the yamaneko. 

“Nah, day spotting is next to impossible. It does lurk around the rivers for fish occasionally, but you'll never be able to see it. Too fast, and besides, thick forest. And you don't want to be out in Iriomote at night, all sort of creatures lurking around," he said with a laugh. 

From its banks, the Urauchi looked like a muddy brown ribbon, giving away no sign of her depth or navigability. The scent and sensation of moisture hung heavy, and almost as if on cue, the heavens opened up just as we settled into our kayak. The rain was falling in sheets now, accompanied by a howling wind that threatened to topple us. Luckily, the water was just about waist-high. We ploughed on as the rain petered out and the whoosh of the wind reduced to a whisper. 

It was then that the magic of the surroundings began to impress itself upon us. The hills seemed to grow more lush with every new bend in the river, which seemed to broaden and narrow at will. One moment, we had the feeling of being entirely exposed in the middle of a rippling lake. In the next, we found ourselves negotiating channels so narrow that our oars repeatedly struck the mangrove branches on either bank. 

Jimmy led us through one such channel to a roaring waterfall. Under his watchful eye, we managed to climb over a few rocks (courtesy the special water shoes he had provided us), and stand directly underneath the cascade. 

A bento lunch at the end of the kayaking trip tasted doubly delicious—we wolfed it down as the sweet ache from all the rowing worked its way down our arms. It was time for the short hike to the vantage point of Kanpire-no-taki—a wide waterfall on the Urauchi. There were a number of smaller cascades lining the trail, with rock pools at their foot. All manner of multi-coloured lizards scurried madly across the forest floor. From a wooden resting hut a few minutes before the end of the trail, we could make out the fish eagles flying low, patrolling the mangroves. 

At the vantage point, we lay down on the smooth rock, weathered by centuries of rain coming down just as it was then. Below us was Kanpire in all its majesty—frothing, foaming and returning to Urauchi its own watery burden. 

Jimmy had arranged a boat to take us back upstream—we had to catch a bus that would take us to Ohara, from where we would take the return ferry to Ishigaki. We did not speak much on that bus ride to Ohara, still reeling from the intensity of our brief communion with the forest and its delights. 

For once, I did not have my eyes glued to the road, looking desperately for any signs of the yamaneko. My gaze was instead fixed on the hills, and the long streams of milky white cascades that punctuated them. From here, Iriomote’s giant waterfalls seemed almost benign, harmless tears on the face of timeless green. But we had been close to them. We had been drenched in their spray, and had heard their rage. 

*** 

Back in Ishigaki, over a dinner of the Okinawa staples of goya chanpuru (a stir-fry with bitter melon) and Orion beer, we spoke about the debate around the classification of the yamaneko. Admittedly, our interest in the natural world could be described as “casual enthusiasts" at best and “BBC Planet Earth fans" at worst. 

Neither of us has had any sort of training in the biological sciences. Yet, after having experienced the glories of primeval Iriomote first-hand, we had grown partial to Leyhausen and Plfeiderer's idea of the yamaneko as a distinct species, the “missing link" to an ancient cat ancestor. 

The island's remoteness, its massive nucleus of unforgiving vegetation and the high coral ringing it had all contributed towards an impression of singularity—now, believing it to be a place where a cat ancestor prowled millennia ago did not require such a huge leap of the imagination. No, we had not laid our eyes on the yamaneko but maybe, just maybe—as we hiked up to waterfalls or struggled to navigate the Urauchi—it had seen us. 

Vikram Shah is a recovering commercial lawyer, gradually realizing that the bills do not pay themselves.

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