Posted by: mystery_man on February 24th, 2012
“The Yamapikarya – Japan’s Mystery Cat”
By Brent Swancer
Recently while researching wildlife on some of Japan’s more remote islands, and I couldn’t help but think of this article I wrote here awhile back on Cryptomundo concerning a mystery cat said to lurk on one of Japan’s most remote islands. I have decided to revisit this enigmatic creature here.
Is there a large mystery cat roaming the jungles of Japan’s remote Iriomote Island?
Iriomote island lies about 200 kilometers east of Taiwan, 1,240 miles Southwest of Tokyo, and is part of Japan’s Okinawa archipelago of islands.
At approximately 289 square kilometers (113 square miles) in area, Iriomote is the largest island in the Yeayama Shoto island chain, and is the second largest island in all of Okinawa. Iriomote is considered to be one of the great wild areas left in Japan, with 90% of its mountainous land made up of lush, pristine subtropical jungle and mangrove swamps.
Much of this land falls within the Iriomote National Park or is protected state land, with its plants and animals protected by a district forestry service.
This beautiful, untouched wilderness is home to many rare and unique animals and plants, some found nowhere else on Earth, and due to this biological diversity, Iriomote island has sometimes been called “The Galapagos of East Asia.”
Iriomote is already home to one known species of wildcat, known as the Iriomote wildcat, or Iriomote cat (Prionailurus iriomotensis), commonly called the “Yamaneko,” or “mountain cat” in Japanese. The Iriomote wildcat is endemic to the island, meaning it is found only here and nowhere else in the world. This cat is so elusive that it was not formally discovered until 1967, and there are many people who have lived on the island their entire lives who have never seen one or are indeed even aware that it exists.
The Iriomote wildcat is approximately the size of a domestic housecat, around 50 cm long and weighing from 3 to 8 kg (6-18 lbs). It is dark or grayish brown in color, with lines on the neck that end at the shoulders and longitudinal rows of black spots that merge into lines on its flanks. The Iriomote cat is thought to be related to Asian leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) native to Southeast Asia, although its exact taxonomy within this group is often disputed. It is one of the most “primitive” forms of extant cat in the world, and with only around 100 or fewer individuals remaining, it is also one of the rarest.
While the Iriomote wildcat is no longer a cryptid, there have long been stories and rumors of another type of larger cat living deep in the remote, mist shrouded jungles of the island.
Iriomote was originally not considered fit for human habitation due to the rampant malaria once found there. The island had primarily an agricultural role, being used for rice farming due to its abundant water, and human settlement on Iriomote island didn’t begin in earnest until after World War II, with the eradication of malaria.
At the time of this population growth, sightings began to surface of large mystery cats in the wilderness. This mystery cat, now known as the “Yamapikarya,” was first known through reports by wild boar hunters, who are known to venture far off the beaten trails into the remote jungles. These hunters told of a large cat in the mountains and swamps of the island’s interior, often described as being similar to a leopard or jaguar.
The Yamapikariya is described as being between 1 and 1.3 meters in length, much larger than the Iriomote wildcat, and stoutly built. Its coat is said to be yellow, dark yellow, or orangish in color, with large, black spots. The tail of the cat is remarkably long, an interesting detail that is often mentioned in reports of the animal.
Another detail that remains consistent in reports is the remarkably arboreal nature of the mystery cat. The Yamapikarya is often reported in trees. They are considered to be excellent climbers and have even been seen to seemingly swing from tree to tree in a manner similar to some kind of primate.
Since the first reports by these hunters, there have been at least 47 eyewitness reports on record, possibly even more. Sightings of the cats reached their pinnacle in the 50s and 60s, after which reported encounters with the cats diminished considerably, which has been speculated to be most probably due to the cats moving deeper into the uninhabited areas of the island to avoid humans and increasing development in the coastal areas. In recent years, sightings have dropped off almost completely, yet some intriguing and often fairly credible recent sightings still pop up from time to time.
One such sighting occurred in the summer of 1978, when a hunter reported seeing a large cat lounging up in a tree. The eyewitness described the cat as having spots that were “oddly shaped,” although exactly how they were odd is not mentioned, and a long tail that hung down “like a vine.” After observing the cat for several minutes, the hunter reports that the cat seemed to suddenly realize it was not alone, after which it bounded down the tree and into the forest with what he says was extraordinary speed and agility. The cat did not make any sounds.
In 2003, a Mr. Shimabukuro, who runs a fishing boat on the island, spotted a Yamapikariya while he was in the mountains setting wild boar traps. According to his report, he was setting the traps and found himself walking along a gravelly open clearing. After walking along this clearing for around 100 meters, he was surprised when a large, spotted cat, estimated at slightly over a meter long, suddenly leapt down from the top of a large boulder, landing right in front of him before disappearing into the underbrush. As the cat retreated, the man noticed that it was spotted, and had a remarkably long tail. He recalled being startled, and claims to have never seen anything like it on the island.
In September of 2007, the cat was seen by a Mr. Aiyoshi, who is a professor at Shimane University in Japan. According to his report, the professor was sitting on a beach fishing for a research project when a dark shape appeared from the thick forest just 2.5 meters from where he sat. His first bewildered reaction upon realizing an animal was there was that a wild boar had crept out of the trees, but it became quickly apparent this was a large cat which he describes as being a meter in length, with a very long tail and black spots, and looking similar to a leopard. The professor reported how the cat stared right at him before calmly slinking into the shadowy forest once more.
What do reports like this mean? The only two types of cat known to exist on the island are the endemic Iriomote wildcat, and introduced house cats, yet it seems fairly obvious from physical descriptions of the mystery animal that what is being seen is neither of these.
The Yamapikariya is described as being much larger than either of these cats, and the animal’s coloring does not match up either. The Iriomote wildcat also does not have a particularly long tail, which may seem like a minor point, but is a feature that is often mentioned in Yamapikarya reports. The long tail is therefore apparently a striking enough attribute of the animal to catch people’s attention and make it noteworthy. There are dogs on the island, but again the reports do not seem to be describing a typical domestic dog either. It also seems that there were likely few, if any, domestic cats or dogs on the island during the time when the first sightings of the Yamapikarya were being reported. In addition, many eyewitnesses of the mystery cat have been hunters, who would probably be quite familiar with the animals of the area.
Whatever is being seen, it seems questionable that the reports can be attributed to misidentifications of dogs or known cats on the island. It seems apparent that the mystery cat is likely something else. But what?
Some have proposed that the Yamapikariya is merely misidentified wild boars that have been seen. This explanation does not seem to be a realistic suggestion in light of what has been seen. Not only do wild boars look nothing like a large cat, but the coloring is also way off, and they don’t climb trees.
It must also be remembered that many of the sightings of the Yamapikariya have been made by hunters, indeed wild boar hunters no less, who got a good look at the animal in question. It seems fairly unlikely that a wild boar hunter would mistake a wild boar for a large spotted cat, so what else could the Yamapikarya be?
One possibility is that what is being seen is a leopard (Panthera pardus), above. While many people may think of Africa when they think of leopards, these cats actually have the widest distribution of any wild cat, and are found in eastern and southeastern Asia as well. Leopards are also very robust and adaptable, inhabiting a wide range of habitats from grassland to jungle, and could likely do quite well on Iriomote. Their black rosette marked coat and fairly stocky build are a good match for the descriptions of the Yamapikariya.
As I have mentioned, many sightings of the Yamapikariya have also been made in trees, including sightings by people who mention being astonished by the speed and agility with which the cat can climb. This would fit well with leopards as they are known for their climbing prowess and for resting or feeding in trees. At typical sizes of 1.3 to 1.9 meters (around 4 to 6 feet) long with a tail 3 to 4 feet long, the leopard tends to be a bit on the large side for what is reported for the Yamapikariya, but it is still worth considering.
It also seems vaguely possible that we could be dealing with another cat native to Asia, the Asian golden cat (Padofelis temminickii). At a tad less than a meter long, the size is somewhat comparable to the Yamapikarya, and although the golden cat typically has a mostly plain golden coat with limited or faded spots, there is a recessive color variant in China that exhibits very leopard -like markings similar to a leopard cat.
One animal that is perhaps the best candidate for the Yamapikariya is the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) – directly above and below – of Asia. These cats are not really a type of leopard, but rather are named for their coloration, which is a grayish, yellow, or yellowish grey, with cloud shaped black spots covering the body.
This seems very similar to the coloration that has been reported by eyewitnesses of Iriomote’s Yamapikarya, and the cloud shaped spots could produce the report that described the spots as “oddly shaped.” The Clouded leopard ranges in size from about 2 to 3 feet long, not including the additional length of the tail, which at 2 or 3 feet long is the same length as the body. This size range and the long tail coincides well with what has been described in Yamapikarya sightings. Since the clouded leopard is a highly arboreal animal and considered one of the best climbers in the cat family, it also fits in well with the reports of the Yamapikarya in trees and its reportedly excellent climbing ability.
In addition to these physical traits, the range of the clouded leopard covers Eastern and Southeast Asia, including a subspecies in nearby Taiwan (Neofelis nebulosa prachyurus), which is now extinct in the wild. In fact, much of the range of the clouded leopard overlaps that of the smaller leopard cats, which are related to the known Iriomote wildcat.
Since the Iriomote wildcat (above) evolved from leopard cats that became isolated on the the island long ago, it seems not too far a jump to suggest that perhaps clouded leopards in the same range could have inhabited the island as well. The subtropical habitat on Iriomote would be also be very comfortable indeed for these cats, since prey species are abundant and clouded leopards tend to prefer tropical and subtropical forests, as well as mangrove swamps.
The clouded leopard is also an extremely elusive and secretive animal, that is rarely seen even in its known habitat. These cats are so reclusive that they are still little understood, and much of what is known about them has been gleaned from observing captive specimens. They are a good candidate if you are looking for a cat that could remain undiscovered on Iriomote.
This brings us to the question of whether a population of any of these cats could really remain hidden on this island.
Although Iriomote Island sounds small at only 113 square miles in area, much of it is completely uninhabited. There are only around 2,000 permanent residents on the island, who are settled in the coastal areas. Infrastructure is poor, with no airstrip (the island is only accessible by boat), and only one main road, which wraps around the coast to connect the various villages. The interior of the island is thick with primeval subtropical jungle and mangrove swamps so dense as to be practically impenetrable and inaccessible by humans, with no roads and few trails.
It is important to consider that the known wildcat is almost never seen even by long term residents, if at all, even though the cats tend to favor low lying coastal areas where the bulk of the island’s human population live. The Yamapikarya could very possibly be lurking more in the mountainous inland regions well away from humans. Also like the known Iriomote wildcat, the clouded leopard and leopard are predominantly nocturnal and well camouflaged, which when taken together with the remote, impassable jungle habitat, makes it seem at least plausible that a small population could remain concealed on the island.
If the Yamapikarya is indeed one of these cats, it seems likely that in their long isolation the cats have evolved uniquely on the island much as the Iriomote wildcat did, making it very possible that it could be an entire new species within its genus, or at the very least a new subspecies. It could very well be that whatever type of cat it is, it could be another animal found only on Iriomote and nowhere else in the world.
Unfortunately at this point, no physical evidence of the Yamapikarya has ever been found, but the mystery remains. Something has been seen on the island that does not match with other animals known to be there. Is it a new type of clouded leopard, leopard, or golden cat? Could it even be a new genus of cat? Is it some other type of large cat, an exotic, even perhaps some type of presumably extinct prehistoric cat? Is it a wild boar, a feral cat, or a dog? Or is it perhaps just a figment of people’s imaginations?
The answer to these questions could be out there right now, prowling the jungles of Iriomote Island.
mystery_man – has written 43 posts on this site.