Poor yield in tree nuts across the country drives hungry bears to venture into communities to look for food, encountering people and causing incidents.
Asian black bears have been making strikingly frequent appearances across the island of Honshu. These increased appearances are a direct result of a poor yield in tree nuts across the country this year, particularly for acorns of the jolcham oak, the Mongolian oak, and the Japanese beech trees that are the main diet of bears that live in the mountains.
As the hungry bears come down from the mountains and venture into communities looking for food, they encounter people, causing incidents.
According to the Ministry of the Environment, there has been a particularly large volume of bear sightings this year, with 13,670 instances between April and September, the largest number for the same time frame in the last five years.
While the distribution of black bears is more concentrated in some areas than others, they live all across Honshu and Shikoku islands. In wooded areas with poor nut yields, particular caution is required as bears traverse footpaths in the early morning.
As bears are surprisingly active in areas of close proximity to humans ー but at different times of the day, therefore going unnoticed ー avoiding risky encounters is key. There was one bear-related death each in Niigata and Akita prefectures in October.
The number of bear sightings began to rise in the 1970s when an average of 2,300 were hunted annually. In the 50 years since, the average numbers for the 1950s and 1960s were 1,000 and 1,300, respectively. In 2019, the number of bears captured or killed reached 5,000, while nearly 4,000 have already been hunted as of September of this year.
Transformation of human societies has been the backdrop of the increased bear population. First is the shift from firewood to petroleum and gas for energy. By the 1970s there was no longer any use for jolcham oak and other trees in mountains nearby human settlements, thus they were left untended.
As a result, both bear habitats and the supply of acorns expanded. When shortages of acorns occurred during years of poor yield, the mountains lost their capacity to support the increased number of bears.
The shrinking human population in semi-mountainous areas and foothills and an increase in abandoned fields and rice paddies are also factors. Bears have become accustomed to eating fruits such as persimmon and chestnuts from trees left in deserted villages, as the distance between them and human settlements has continued to shrink. Aging among hunters and a decrease in hunters overall have also played a role in the increase in bears.
Due to the multiple factors influencing the increase in bear sightings, solutions are not simple. Making biomass virtually carbon neutral and promoting biomass power generation aimed at restoration of the forestry industry are both well-advised policies, but will take years to fully implement.
One potentially effective immediate response could lie in the power of dogs. A non-profit organization in the town of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture has been commissioned by the local government to promote the coexistence of humans and bears using “bear dogs” — that is, dogs trained to chase away bears. It is hoped that this practice can be expanded and applied in other areas as well.
(Read the original column in Japanese here.)
Author: The Sankei Shimbun