Okinawa Wildlife Uncovered: 6 Weird and Wonderful Creatures
18 November 2016
Photo by nachans on flickr

A land of wondrous natural scenery and impressive biological diversity, the sub-tropical islands of Okinawa are home to a dazzling array of rare and beautiful wildlife. Though world-renown for its bountiful coral reefs and abundant sea life, the natural diversity of Okinawa wildlife goes far beyond fish. In fact, the islands are teeming with wildlife just waiting to be discovered, as long as you know what to look for and where to look. If ever you do decide to make the journey, here are some of the unique and magnificent Okinawa animals you might find.




 

Okinawa Wildlife Beyond Fish: 6 Animals to Look For


Okinawan Woodpecker

Photo by rapayotan on flickr

The Okinawan woodpecker is one of Okinawa’s most distinctive birds. It is also, unfortunately, one of the most endangered, with fewer than 600 individuals thought to exist in the wild. The Okinawan woodpecker is identifiable by its brown plumage with white tips on the primary feathers. Males have a red crest on the top of the head, while females’ crests are black. Okinawan woodpeckers tend to live deep in old-growth forests, their habitat consisting largely of mature evergreen broadleaf trees. If you want to see an Okinawan woodpecker in the wild, you need to travel to the mountainous northern reaches of the main island and take the steep and narrow hiking trails that criss-cross the dense jungle. But be sure to go with a local guide, since the not all of the Okinawa wildlife that makes its home in the jungles will be happy to see you.
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Habu Snake

Photo by Mollenborg on flickr

Among the less hospitable but truly awe-inspiring forms of Okinawa wildlife is the habu snake, a venomous creature at once feared and revered. Feeding mostly on rodents, the habu grows to a length of up to two meters and makes its home in jungle and grassland. While close contact with a habu is generally to be avoided, this does not stop some adventure-seeking tourists from venturing out with the express goal of viewing one in its natural habitat, the ubiquitous signs warning of the snake’s presence only further stoking their curiosity. Perhaps what drives their interest is the snake’s important place in the culture of the island. With virtually every rural resident able to share stories of habu encounters (possibly over a glass of habu-infused Awamori), it’s no wonder that so many tourists find themselves itching to see one in real life. Most active at night, the summer months offer the best chance of actually encountering a habu in the wild. But be careful, the summer is also when the snake is most territorial. Though bites are fairly rare, some snake enthusiasts have reported feeling the bite before seeing the snake. While hiking tours can be arranged, it may be best to visit tourist parks such as mainland Okinawa’s Ryukyu Mura, where safe and humane demonstrations are given many times daily.




Okinawa Rail

The Okinawa rail, known locally as the Yanbaru Kuina, is a small flightless bird with a long red beak it uses to feed on snails and small lizards, as well as various insects in the soil. Much like the Okinawa woodpecker, the Okinawa rail prefers to live deep within mature forests, although it also occupies grassland, marshes and cultivated land within its range.  Approximately 30 cm in length, the bird has a wingspan of around 50 cm and weighs about half a kilogram. Native to the north, it lives only around Yanbaru, with a total range of about 260 square km. When hiking in Yanbaru, look for the olive brown plumage on the rail’s back, as well as the black feathers with thin white strips on its front. Though it is harmless to humans, it’s best not to approach it. While it may be flightless, the bird is a fast runner and will head for dense cover at the first sign of trouble, making it hard to view or photograph. Unfortunately, like 3 other types of Okinawa wildlife on this list, the Okinawan rail is endangered as a result of habitat loss due to development.




Iriomote Cat

One of the most unique and impressive examples of Okinawa wildlife is the Iriomote cat, named after the remote island on which it lives. This Okinawa animal is so precipitously endangered that there are thought to be fewer than 250 individuals left. Often confused with the common house cat, these Okinawa animals are actually nothing like their domesticated cousins. Belonging to the leopard cat family, this feline sports faint stripes on its mostly gray fur, has somewhat round ears and lacks the long tufts of fur common to other members of its family. The Iriomote cat is carnivorous, feeding on rodents and small mammals; but unlike most cats, it likes to swim and can often be seen crossing rivers. If you want to find an Iriomote cat in the wild, remember the animal is nocturnal, so it’s best to go out at night with a flashlight and look deep into the forest where its reflective eyes can be seen peering back at you through the thick brush.




Coconut Crab

Photo by weedmandan on flickr

Okinawa animals that can fly, walk on four feet or slither on land are interesting. That said, if arthropods are your thing, be sure to ask the locals where you can find one of the most awesome land-based crabs anywhere, namely the coconut crab. Though found on the mainland, coconut crabs are more plentiful in the Yaeyama Islands to the south. Named for their ability to crack open coconuts with their mighty claws, coconut crabs are the largest land-dwelling arthropods in the world. With a leg span of up to one meter and a potential body weight of 4kg, they are also the largest terrestrial invertebrates. With such impressive defenses as their powerful claws and tough exoskeleton, it should come as no surprise that this impressive specimen of Okinawa wildlife has no natural predators, except for other crabs of the same species.  As large as they are, coconut crabs can be somewhat difficult to spot owing to their nocturnal habits and tendency to hide during the day. Nonetheless, keen-eyed naturalists willing to venture out during the night—or even at dawn or dusk—may catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures.



Sea Turtles

Photo by Cumberland Island NPS on flickr

If there is one group of Okinawa animals for which the islands are truly famous, it would have to be the sea turtles. Three different species of sea turtles thrive in Okinawa, namely the carnivorous loggerhead turtle, the green turtle named for the color of the inside of its shell, and the hawksbill turtle, which is critically endangered. Sea turtles nest on sandy beaches, mostly on the outer islands of Okinawa, from which the hatchlings depart on a lengthy ocean voyage, returning after 30 years to lay eggs on the same shores from which their journey began. One of the best places to get close to Okinawa wildlife such as sea turtles is in the pristine waters of Miyakojima, where the world-famous Shigira resort offers guided snorkeling excursions. Satisfied participants frequently report sightings of sea turtles, some up to a meter in length.






 


Experience the Wonder of Okinawa Wildlife on Miyakojima


Photo by Ikusuki on flickr

Visitors to Japan’s sub-tropical paradise, particularly the outer islands such as Iriomote or Miyakojima, marvel at the bountiful presence of nature and the diversity of creatures to be found there. If you are looking for encounters with Okinawa wildlife and nature and you happen to be staying at Shigira resort, you can take advantage of the numerous eco-tours on offer, or even take the chance to swim with sea turtles.  Regardless of what sort of adventures you are looking for, nature and animal lovers will not leave Okinawa disappointed.



 

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