Japan contends with record number of bear attacks amid rural depopulation

Japan recorded its highest number of bear attacks ever in 2020, with experts warning attacks could become more frequent still.
Japan recorded its highest number of bear attacks ever in 2020, with experts warning attacks could become more frequent still. © France 24

At least two people have been killed and more than 140 injured in Japan in the last six months as the number of bear sightings in populated areas has reached a five-year high and the country is facing its worst year ever for attacks. Experts warn that with increased rural depopulation, bear attacks could become more frequent still.

Advertising

Gunshots rang out on October 19 at a large shopping mall in Kaga, a city of 65,000 inhabitants on the Sea of Japan’s coast. Shortly afterwards, the body of a large adult bear was carried out of the building, 13 hours after it wandered into the complex and caused panic among local residents.

The incident came only days after two people died in separate bear attacks, both in populated areas.

According to Japan’s ministry of environment, more than 140 people have been injured since April as the country’s number of bear sightings reached a five-year high.

The sharp increase this year is partly attributed to a shortage of acorns, the main food for bears, as well as reduced human activity due to the coronavirus pandemic. But experts point to a larger problem of rural depopulation and unmanaged woodlands.

Blurred boundaries

“Up until the 1970s, there were clear boundaries between rural towns and forests. People managed woods on the outskirts of their villages, and animals kept to their natural habitat. But in the past few decades, as hunters aged and younger generations left the countryside to work in cities, those borders became blurred,’’ Kazuhiko Maita, head of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, told FRANCE 24.

With rural villages being inhabited by fewer and aging residents, crops and fruit are being left unharvested, drawing wild animals towards them.

“Abandoned farmland and unmanaged woods provided new habitat for the female and (for) cubs running away from older male bears in the mountains,’’ Maita said.

New generations of bears that grew up near populated areas are less afraid of encounters with humans, he also said. 

Bear sightings have become so common in recent years that Japan’s government has issued guidelines for schoolchildren on what to do if they come across one on their way home. In August, a teenager was knocked off his bicycle by a young cub.

Thousands culled each year 

Japan is home to two species of bear – the Higuma, which exists only on the northern island of Hokkaido, and the Tsukinowaguma, which can be found in the rest of the country. The latter, also known as the Asian black bear, is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) mostly due to deforestation and hunting for use in traditional medicine.

Japan’s human population is shrinking and its forests are expanding, and the numbers of bears are growing across large areas of the country.

Despite being protected by wildlife conservation laws, thousands of bears are killed each year as part of local governments’ pest control efforts. Ministry of environment figures show that around 5,500 bears have been culled so far this year, approaching a record set in 2019.

Most are shot after wandering into human areas, but some are culled as part of population management – even though their precise numbers are not known.

Human-bear coexistence

While some local governments set annual culling quotas to manage bear populations, the island of Hokkaido takes a different approach.

The region abandoned controlled culling in the late 1980s following a decline in the population of Higuma, worshipped by indigenous Ainu people as their most important god.

But lately, Hokkaido is also having to deal with increasing numbers of bear attacks in urban areas.

“Bear sightings have been rare in our city, with only about one reported every five years. This year has been abnormal … we’ve already had 10 reports’’ says Ai Sasaki, a municipal official in Takikawa city, 90 kilometres from the regional capital Sapporo.

Alarmed, the city installed recently developed “robot wolves’’, designed to scare off beasts with flashing LED lights and blaring noise, to send them back into the wild.  Since installing them in September, it has received no reports of bear sightings.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” said Hiroki Kondo, another city official. “We want to protect wild animals as much as we can, but protecting human lives comes above all else. Our aim is to find the best way for bears and humans to coexist peacefully.’’

Scientists say it is time the government took more comprehensive measures.

Shinsuke Koike, associate professor of ecology at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, says a concerted strategy is needed such as large-scale zoning –  establishing clear boundaries or buffers to separate people and wildlife – and addressing farmland abandonment. 

“The problem cannot be solved by wildlife management alone. It has to be treated in a much wider context, as part of national agricultural and land planning,’’ he said.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning