A Waterfall Kingdom at the End of the Earth
24 October 2013 | Fact sheet
Shiretoko National Park, Japan
Shiretoko National Park is a World Heritage Site in Hokkaido in Japan. The park covers the Shiretoko Peninsula, which faces the Sea of Okhotsk. The word "Shiretoko" comes from an Ainu word "sir etok", which means "end of the Earth”. One of the world’s largest temperate wilderness areas, it is also one of the last unexplored regions of Japan. The park consists of steep mountain peaks covered with virgin forests. Cormorants and white-tailed sea eagles live there, and the whole area has been recognized as one of the world’s Important Bird Areas (IBA) by Birdlife International. The park provides an outstanding example of the interaction of marine and terrestrial ecosystems as well as extraordinary ecosystem productivity, largely influenced by the formation of seasonal sea ice at the lowest latitude in the northern hemisphere.
Size and Location
Shiretoko Peninsula is located in the north-east of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. The site includes the land from the central part of the peninsula to its tip (Shiretoko Cape) and the surrounding marine area. The Shiretoko Peninsula is approximately 25 km wide at its base and protrudes 70 km into the southern boundary of the Sea of Okhotsk. The total area of the park is 56,100 hectares.
Fauna and Flora
Shiretoko is known as a "waterfall kingdom," with waterfalls such as: the warm-water Kamuiwakkayu-no-taki Falls, which gives off steam; Furepe-no-taki Falls, also named "maiden's tears”; and Oshinkoshin-no-taki Falls, which flows alongside a road and drops magnificently towards the sea. There are also the Shiretoko-Goko (five lakes), which are small, quiet lakes known as “the five jewels” surrounded by a virgin forest.
The majority of the vegetation of the terrestrial ecosystem is in a natural or semi-natural condition. Various types of virgin vegetation are present from the coastline to the mountain peaks, which reach 1,600 metres high. A number of endemic plant species are found within the park, including Viola kitamiana (a rare violet), which is endemic to the Shiretoko Mountain Range, and a number of plant species found within the park are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as well. While the altitude variation within the park is only 1,600 metres from the coast to the highest peak (Mount Rausu), alpine plants such as the Japanese stone pine and other alpine plant communities are developed at relatively low altitudes, due to an upper forest line at about 800 metres.
The forest within the park is a Pan Mixed Forest Zone and consists of a mosaic of three types of forests: cool temperate deciduous broad-leaved forest with species such as Japanese Oak, Painted Maple and Japanese Linden; sub-arctic evergreen coniferous forest with species such as Sakhalin Fir, Yeso Spruce and Sakhalin Spruce; and mixed forest combining the above cool temperate deciduous broad leaved forest and sub-arctic evergreen coniferous forest.
The park has a great number of marine and terrestrial species, some of them endangered and endemic, such as Blackiston’s fish owl and the Viola kitamiana plant. The site is globally important for threatened seabirds and migratory birds, as well as a number of salmonid species. It is also important for some cetacean species, marine mammals including Steller’s sea lion, and Japan's largest mammal species, the Ezo brown bears.
Twenty-eight species of marine mammals have been identified in the coastal area of Shiretoko. These include the Steller Sea Lion, which is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, as well as a number of other important marine mammal species. The Steller Sea Lion is one of the flagship species within the park, and the coastal waters of the Shiretoko Peninsula are essential for overwintering and feeding for this species. The Walleye Pollack is a particularly important fish species for the diet of the Steller Sea Lion. The Sea Lions rest in waters about one km from the coast and feed along the edge of the continental shelf near the isobathymetric line of 200 metres.
There are thirty five species of terrestrial mammals within the park, including three species of one family of Chiroptera (Bat) which are listed as Endangered or Lower Risk (LR) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The park has one of the highest recorded densities of brown bear populations in the world, with estimates of up to 35 bears per 100 square kilometres.
A rich diversity of birds is found within the park, with 264 species, including 9 species listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species such as the Blakiston’s Fish Owl (endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) and the previously mentioned Stellar Sea Eagle. The park is also an important wintering site for the White-tailed Eagle, with up to 600 individuals recorded at the park in winter. These three species, along with the Black Woodpecker, are designated as Natural Monuments in Japan, due to their rarity and high scientific value. The coastal areas of Shiretoko are also important for migratory seabirds. The sea cliffs along the coast from Utoro on the western side of the Peninsula to Shiretoko Cape are important breeding grounds for a range of species, including the Japanese Cormorant. In particular, the Shiretoko Peninsula is also the southernmost habitat in the world for the sea run of the Dolly Varden.
Tourism and wildlife management are important issues within the terrestrial component of the park. It is estimated there are approximately 2.34 million visitors per year to the Shiretoko Peninsula. Summer is the high season, but some 300,000 people also come to see the sea ice from January to March. Popular tourism activities include the nature walks to Shiretoko-goko lakes and Kamuiwakka, trekking around Lake Rauso, sightseeing from Shiretoko Pass and climbing in the Shiretoko mountain range. Nature sightseeing from the sea on tour boats is another popular attraction.
Some signs of soil erosion have been detected around the high mountain trails, underlining the need for clear management strategies and actions. The high density of bear populations in proximity to an increasing number of visitors also underlines the need for effective management of human-bear interactions, particularly in and around main tourist destinations. The State Party, working with NGOs and local communities, is addressing these problems through a range of non-lethal ways, including increased public awareness and the short term closure of key visitor use areas, as required.
There is also a broad range of fishing activities within and adjacent to the park. Fisheries activities are controlled by the Fisheries Law and other regulations issued by the Hokkaido Prefectural government, voluntary restrictions by the fisheries industry, as well as an artificial production and fry release programme for salmon and trout.