With the arrival of autumn, wild bears continue to appear in many locations around Japan. This is resulting in an increased number of injured people and even fatalities.
Accidents caused by bears have been conspicuously high in 2023. According to the Ministry of the Environment, 109 people were injured by bears in 15 prefectures between April and September. The pace of attacks is unprecedented.
Bears will remain active until the end of November when they hibernate. Consequently, people everywhere in Japan, outside of Kyushu where bears do not live, and Shikoku where they are almost extinct, should exercise adequate caution.
Measures should be taken to keep the bears away from inhabited areas. Meanwhile, people should refrain from taking morning and evening walks, when unexpected encounters with bears are common.
Killing Bears is Also a Problem
There are forecasts for likely bear appearances each fall. These are based on the blooming patterns from the spring for acorn-bearing trees in mountainous areas. Beech and mizunara (quercus crispula) trees are two of those varieties.
When the supply of acorns proves inadequate, many bears come down from deep in the mountains in search of persimmons and chestnuts in inhabited areas. They do so to get the nourishment they need before hibernating.
The 2023 supply of acorns has again been scanty. However, there is another reason for the repeated mass appearances of bears on the scale seen in recent years. That is the decline of farm communities. The exodus of workers to the cities has led to a sharp decline in the population of rural areas.
As farmlands and forest areas have been abandoned, the buffer zone between inhabited farm communities and the deep forest that is the natural habitat for bears has been gradually transformed. Now the buffer area, too, is a deep forest.
Easy Approach to Human Settlements
Bears are now able to approach human settlements undetected by hiding in thick grass and dense, un-thinned trees. Monkeys, wild boars, and deer, too are increasing the pressure on communities perched on the edge of wild areas. Moreover, the ranks of local hunters who have traditionally eliminated encroaching wild animals are fast shrinking and aging. We must not overlook the fact that these and other changes have contributed to the increase in the appearance of bears.
Even so, the number of injuries from bears people have suffered in recent years, including this year, has become quite alarming. There have been over 150 victims for three years in a row from FY2019. It is feared that the number of injuries could go even higher this fiscal year (2023).
By way of comparison, for the three years from FY1980, there were less than ten bear attacks each year. The rapid increase in incidents began in FY1999. Since then, there have been repeated years with more than 100 injuries occurring every one to three years. Even in years with relatively fewer attacks, the total has not dropped below 50.
The Problem of Bear Traps
There is another problem. A startling number of black bears are also being killed with traps. In FY2019 the number was about 5,300. In FY2020 the total rose to about 6,100. (The number of brown bears killed in Hokkaido was 760 and 860 respectively during those two fiscal years.) For this fiscal year 2023, as of the end of August, the tally had reached around 2,600.
An immediate problem is the delay by the government in determining the total number of black bears living in the wild. A survey conducted by the Ministry of the Environment about a decade ago estimated the number of animals at around 15,000. It is not clear whether that still holds true today.
Bears Are Ecologically Important
If an accurate updated survey is not carried out urgently, it could lead to excessive thinning of bear numbers and collapse of the local populations.
In Japan's forest ecosystems bears stand at the top of the food chain for large omnivores. They serve various functions for the ecosystem, such as roaming around and sowing the seeds of plants they have eaten within their zone of activity.
Roughly 70 percent of Japan's land surface is covered by forests. The extinction of bears would negatively impact the diverse functions of forests, which serve as carbon dioxide sinks and sources of fresh water.
The Basic Goal Should Be Coexistence
There is a problem that vexes researchers and bird and wildlife administrators who are trying to achieve coexistence between bears and humans. Namely, the increase in numbers of "urban bears" which are intruding on densely populated areas in Japan.
Bears that have grown up without the experience of being chased by humans due to the depopulation of mountain villages are increasingly wandering into urban areas. Excited by the alien environment in which they suddenly find themselves, these bears are apt to injure people they encounter.
On October 19, one such "urban bear" attacked a group of five people, including high school students, at a bus stop in the city center of Kita Akita City in Akita Prefecture. Such animals have also been dubbed "new generation bears" because they seem to lack the inherent common sense of bears.
Possibly, these bears have become the equivalent of "baby boomers." There has been a relative increase in food availability due to recent mass killings of other bears.
Global Warming's Role
Another factor to keep in mind is that prolonged heat delays the start of hibernation for bears. People who go out for walks in the early morning or evening in areas where bears have appeared should be especially careful.
Incidents with bears are more likely to occur at dusk and twilight. And it is best to avoid paths along the banks of rivers or beside dense bushes.
Since FY2019, the number of injuries incurred in farming districts, residential areas, and urban areas has increased. And, in FY2012, their number surpassed the total for injuries incurred in mountain forests. Until then, the number of forest attacks had always been greater.
Bear encounters, once considered an outlandish possibility by many, are now becoming an all-too-familiar risk. Black bears have even begun to appear within the Tokyo metropolitan area.
The spheres of bear activity and human activity are growing closer. That is the new reality that we must not forget.
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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun