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NIPPONIA No.32 March 15, 2005
In Japan Today
Watch Out, Bears Are Coming!
Written by Sakagami Yasuko, Photo credits: Mainichi Shimbun
Bears have been making unwelcome appearances in populated areas in Japan over the last few years. This was especially true in 2004, when many prowled around homes and schools, and some attacked people. Between January and October 2004, 103 people were assaulted by bears on 88 occasions. The most serious incidents were in the Hokuriku region, which faces the Sea of Japan. There, people were harmed in 31 incidents. More than 1,600 bears were either shot to death, or captured and sent back to the mountains. Bears have been featured in the news all too regularly.
Japan has two wild bear species. One is the hi-guma (brown bear). The other one, the tsukinowa-guma (Asiatic black bear), is causing the problems. It inhabits parts of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. A Ministry of the Environment publication, The Threatened Wildlife of Japan (Red Data Book), lists the Asiatic black bear as an endangered species. It says there are only about 10,000 to 12,000 such bears in the entire country.
Bears are timid, always on the lookout for danger. Their natural habitat is deep in the mountains, in deciduous forests of beeches and oaks. Nuts and acorns are an important part of their diet. The forests situated between inhabited places and the high mountains, known as satoyama, have practically no food for bears, so in the past bears did not come down from the mountains and bother people. But since the 1970s, many mountain slopes have been stripped of their deciduous trees and replaced with conifers like Japanese cedar and cypress. This has robbed the bears of their main food supply, beechnuts and acorns.
The managing director of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, Maita Kazuhiko, says: "The deterioration of natural vegetation in the mountains has been well recognized for at least two decades. Bears have been suffering for some time. But we believe the recent prowling and attacks are basically due to the serious storms we've had over the last while."
Ten typhoons* struck Japan during the first 11 months of 2004, far more than the previous record of six in one calendar year (1990 and 1993 each had six). The Hokuriku region, where many bear sightings occurred, experienced two extremely heavy downpours during the wet season in early summer. Maita explains: "Bears are accustomed to climbing trees to eat nuts and acorns. But big storms knock their 'meals' to the ground, where other wild animals get them. This leaves only starvation rations for the bears. And bears are afraid of loud noises, so they find the rain and wind very stressful. This combination of circumstances can make them go berserk."
The human uproar over bear sightings died down after the bears went into hibernation. But what about the future? Bears in Japan could face extinction, so humans must approach the problem carefully. Local governments and wildlife specialists face a dilemma in protecting both residents and bears. And so the search goes on for ways to maintain natural environments for the benefit of both people and wildlife.
* A typhoon is defined as a tropical low-pressure system with a maximum wind speed near its center of at least 17.2 meters per second.