“The wild horses in Yururi Island”
A desert island floating off the Nemuro Peninsula of Hokkaido. It was ever called “the paradise for horses.” However, the paradise shall come to the end quietly soon.
Yururi Island, uninhabited now, is located off the coast of Konbumori area, Nemuro City, Hokkaido, where some descendants of the horses are still living by themselves now, which were brought to this small island decades ago (in 1950s) as the workforce of konbu (kelp) fishing industry from the mainland Hokkaido. The island is 7.8 km in circumference, 168 hectares in size, 43 meters above sea level, and most of the coastal coastline of the plateau is bounded by the cliffs, which reaches a height of 30-40 meters, and surrounded by reefs. The power of horses was needed to carry the wet and heavy seaweeds up against the cliff.
The name of “Yururi” originally came from Ainu`s term “uriru” meaning “a place where cormorants inhabit.” The island is designated as a wildlife refuge by Japan and a natural monument by Hokkaido because it is a breeding colony formed by such birds as tufted puffins and red-faced cormorants, which are appointed as rare birds. That is why nobody is admitted to land on the island.
It is around 1950 that the horses were brought to the island. After the war, the fishermen who didn’t have enough space for the drying procession of the seaweed in Nemuro, the mainland, began to move to the island for the space, bringing some horses so that they could pull konbu to the space on the sheer cliff. The horses stood by on 30 – 40 meters high cliff, pulling a net of konbu put in a wooden crate by means of a pulley hanging from a scaffold from the sea up on the cliff. At the most, there were 9 simple lodging houses and 7 scaffolds standing tall. Still the remains of scaffolds and a lot of small stones left at the places for drying konbu are seen, which remind us of busy days in the island.
But since 1965, a lot of new and modern processing places have been built in the mainland, and motor engined boats started working between Yururi Island and the mainland. The fishermen working at the island did not need to stay there. They started leaving behind the island one by one. It was in 1971 that the last one left. There was no place for the horses to live in the mainland and the fishermen couldn’t bear to sell their horses for meat. What they could do was to leave the horses in Yururi Island, where they could survive by themselves by eating Ainu Sasa nipponica (bamboo-grass) growing there abundantly. Also in the mainland, many farmers began to sell their hoses with the spread of trucks.
Thereafter a stallion has been brought to the island every five years or so, in order to get rid of the disorder of incest. When mares were born, some were thinned out. There were as many as 30 horses at the peak. The horses have been left wild and free without any human involvement. The tools have been modernized and mobilized and the horses have become useless as the livestock. They have lived their lives generation to generation without being actively used by the men. Looking at those horses living peacefully in the island of Yururi Island, people call it “the paradise of Horses”. With tufted puffins singing and precious type of flowers such as Regal rhubarb plantein lily (Hosta rectifolia) and Adenophora triphylla var. Japonica in the full bloom in summer time in the island, the horses have been living their lives, adopting themselves to the harsh environment in the winter, and we can say they are the cultural product and outcome of the history and climate of Nemuro area. But in 2006, due to aging of the fishermen who had been taking care of the horses, stallions were brought back to the mainland and 14 female horses remained in Yururi Island. They are all destined to die in the island soon or later.
In 2006, there were 14 horses in Yururi Island. But in 2011, there were twelve. In 2017,
only three. In summertime, more than 300 kind of plants and flowers grow and bloom in Yururi Island, that is designated as the preserved area of natural Environment of Hokkaido. But when all the horses have left the island or died away, the whole island would be covered with rice plants, and all vegetation including rare high land plants in Yururi Island might be expelled or disappear. If the plants and horses of the island will be preserved and protected as natural monument of Hokkaido, then Yururi Island must have a different view of future.
Looking at wild horses living in a small heaven floating in the sea off the peninsula of Nemuro, we can’t help asking ourselves what we should do for the future of the Island and how we can pass it to the next generation.
Photographer OKADA Atsushi