Friday, May 6, 2016

The War on Tanuki

The cute creature Sweden wants to wipe out

BBC  By Keith Moore BBC News, Sweden 4/6/16

They look cute and cuddly and are sometimes kept as pets - but raccoon dogs are a menace, threatening wildlife across Europe. Sweden is so worried about their impact that it has trained a team to hunt and kill the animals, with the unwitting help of creatures made to betray their mates.

It's mid-April and on the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, the ice covering the sea is still a metre thick.

It's where Ludde Noren and Viktor Medstrom, two professional hunters from the Swedish Association for Hunting and Wildlife Management have switched off their snowmobiles and are using GPS tracking equipment to try to detect signals of an unwelcome visitor.

The animal they are looking for is a raccoon dog, a fox-like creature native to East Asia that has a similar face to a raccoon but is a member of the canine family.

The beeps coming from the tracking equipment are weak, so it's back on the snowmobiles to roar across the vast expanse of the frozen sea towards a small island.

Ludde Noren (left) and Per-Arne Ahlen hunting raccoon dogs 

Per-Arne Ahlen who leads Sweden's project to eradicate raccoon dogs, is with them too. He says the animals were first released in the European parts of the former Soviet Union by biologists as a source of fur. 

"Economic success 80 years ago, today an ecological disaster," he says.
An ecological disaster, he explains, because raccoon dogs feed on amphibians and ground-nesting birds in wetland areas.

"Amphibian species can go extinct in areas with a high raccoon dog population," Ahlen says.
Along with the Arctic fox, they reproduce more quickly than any other canine species. A million are born every year in Finland, and there are thousands more in Germany. They have been sighted as far west as France and the Netherlands, Ahlen says.

Sweden's plan to eradicate raccoon dogs began a decade ago, when they were first spotted in the far north of the country - now the animals are hunted to reduce the threat to biodiversity.

Some of the work is done from an office in Lulea, a city 900km (560 miles) north of the capital Stockholm. The staff there receive thousands of sightings from members of the public every year, which are then followed up by field staff.

There are also cameras on the main routes between Sweden and Finland which can detect raccoon dogs as they arrive in the country.

And from their computers they are able to track the so-called "Judas animals".

These are raccoon dogs that have been caught, sterilised, tagged and released.

Raccoon dogs stay with a partner for life and as soon as the Judas dogs are released, they go in search of a new partner.

When one stops moving, the office dispatches one of the six full-time field workers to see if it has found a new partner.

Two hours north-east of the office, Noren and Medstrom, the two men on the snowmobiles, have tracked one of the Judas animals to a small uninhabited island still covered in snow.

Their tracking equipment now beeps at shorter intervals.

"You hear, the signal is more frequent, it's a moving signal," says Noren. He's helped by his hunting dog, which can help sniff out the raccoon dog but is muzzled so it can't do any harm.

There are paw prints in the snow. It's hard to tell whether it's from one raccoon dog or two.
Noren tells everyone to stop. There's fur poking out from behind a tree.

Are raccoon dogs aggressive animals?

"I'm used to comparing it to a badger on sleeping pills," Noren says.

Ludde Noren with a trapped raccoon dog 

Project leader Ahlen takes the lead and hooks the raccoon dog with a snare. It barely moves.

It is alone and hasn't managed to find a partner for the team to shoot.

So it is weighed and released.

The system hasn't worked on this occasion but Ahlen is convinced of its effectiveness.

"I stole it from the Spanish and Ecuadorian governments, their way of eradicating goats on Galapagos," he says. "[They] didn't succeed until they started with the Judas goats."

Ahlen says it's a technique being used a lot now in conservation biology to eradicate invasive species. There are Judas rats in Mexico, Judas pigs in North America and Judas camels in Australia.

At one time, there were between 100-130 raccoon dogs in Sweden, Ahlen says. But in the past 10 years they have killed about 2,000 in Sweden and on the bordering areas of Finland and they're now finding and killing fewer and fewer.

The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides)

Indigenous to East Asia, the raccoon dog is one of the few canids that can climb trees 

Sweden has a relatively small population of raccoon dogs - now probably fewer than 100, says Ahlen. He estimates there are up to 1,000 in Denmark and hundreds of thousands in Germany and Poland. In Finland the population is rising and in spring is approximately 250,000 - although about a million cubs are born each year, most die from starvation, hunting and road accidents. In Norway, there are "hopefully zero - we try to keep it that way". In France a few sightings and some road kills have been reported. The creatures could soon establish themselves in the wild both there and in the UK where escaped pets pose a potential problem, he says. 

It's illegal to keep them as pets in Sweden, Denmark and Norway but Ahlen says he has seen evidence that people in the UK do have them as pets.

"The thing if you have them as pets is that they will escape and then you will endanger your native fauna if you release them in England," he says.

"Both from Ireland and the UK, I've seen several cases where people have lost their pets and I'm quite sure that if you have not already, I think that you will have your first feral emerging population by reproduction of escaped pets."

Ahlen says the project to eradicate raccoon dogs in Sweden hasn't faced any opposition.
"Not even the animal rights groups are against what we're doing because we are protecting our grandchildren's nature, we are protecting the animals that will disappear if we have raccoon dogs in southern Sweden," he says.

"Conservation biology is not always nice, it's not beautiful all the time."


Tanuki in Japan

The tanuki probably counts as Japan's most misunderstood shapeshifter. To begin with, its animal form is usually called a badger or raccoon, when it is in fact a dog. The real tanuki is a wild species belonging to the dog family that cannot interbreed with domestic dogs, any more than foxes or jackals can. It is rather stupid, mates for life, and is strangely unterritorial. Its range runs from Japan across Asia, and includes parts of Europe.

As it is a tiny little thing the size of a big rabbit, the legends provide two different solutions to the mass problem. Some tanuki shapeshifters changed into giant versions of this rather innocent wild animal. In this form, they could be a threat in a way that would have simply been impossible for a normal-sized tanuki. The other solution was that the size changed but not the weight. Thus, a tanuki could change into a normal woman, but it would have neither the strength nor the weight of a real person.

The tanuki shapeshifter was sometimes limited to just two forms: human and tanuki. Others were master shapeshifters, able to change into an exact copy of any human, as well as other animal forms like the horse, and sometimes even inanimate objects.

Tanuki in the 1994 Hayao Miyazaki film "Pom Poko"
Tanuki is often mistakenly translated as raccoon or badger, but is in fact a raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides), a canid species native to Japan and other Asian countries. Tanuki have been part of Japanese mythology since ancient times. The mythical tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded.

Tanuki in folklore

Tanuki are usually portrayed with oversized testicles.
The current humorous image of tanuki is thought to have been developed during the Kamakura era. The wild tanuki has unusually large testicles, a feature often comically exaggerated in artistic depictions of the creature. Tanuki may be shown with their testicles flung over their backs like a traveller's pack, or using them as drums. Tanuki are also typically depicted as having large bellies. They may be shown drumming on their bellies instead of their testicles, especially in children's art.

A common schoolyard song in Japan (the tune of which can be heard in the arcade game Ponpoko) makes rather explicit reference to the tanuki anatomy:

    Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa
    Kaze mo nai no ni
    Bura bura bura

Roughly translated, it means "Tanuki's testicles swing back and forth even when there is no wind blowing." 

Tanuki in Shigaraki, Japan (photograph by akaitori

During the Kamakura and Muromachi eras, some stories began to include more sinister tanuki. The Otogizoshi story of "Kachi-kachi Yama" features a tanuki that clubs an old lady to death and serves her to her unknowing husband as "old lady soup". Other stories report tanuki as being harmless and productive members of society. Several shrines have stories of past priests who were tanuki in disguise. Shapeshifting tanuki are sometimes believed to be a transformation of the souls of household goods that were used for one hundred years or more.

A popular tale known as Bunbuku chagama is about a tanuki who fooled a monk by transforming into a tea-kettle. Another is about a tanuki who tricked a hunter by disguising his arms as tree boughs, until he spread both arms at the same time and fell off the tree. Tanuki are said to cheat merchants with leaves they have magically disguised as paper money. Some stories describe tanuki as using leaves as part of their own shape-shifting magic.

In metalworking, tanuki skins were often used for thinning gold. As a result, tanuki became associated with metal mines and metal craftwork and were marketed as front yard decoration and good luck charm for bringing in prosperity.

Tanuki by Melody Pena
Statues of tanuki can be found outside many Japanese temples and restaurants, especially noodle shops. These statues often wear a big, cone-shaped hat and carry a bottle of sake. Tanuki statues always have a large belly, although contemporary sculptures may or may not show the traditional large testicles. These exaggerated features represent fertility and plenty.

Tom Robbins' recent book Villa Incognito has also done much to spread awareness of tanuki, especially in America.

Linguistic aspects

While tanuki are prominent in Japanese folklore and proverbs, they were not always properly distinguished from other animals. In local dialects, tanuki and mujina refer either to a raccoon dog, a badger, or a relative of the badger. What is known as tanuki in one region may be known as mujina in another region. In today's Tokyo standard dialect, tanuki refers to raccoon dogs and anaguma refers to badgers. There are such local dishes known as tanuki-jiru, or "tanuki soup," which either uses raccoon dog or badger, the latter being more renowned for its taste.

The kanji for tanuki can be used interchangeably without change of meaning, while the former is currently more common. Originally, the characters were used to refer to mid-sized mammals, mostly wild cats. Since wild cats live in only very limited regions of Japan (e.g. Iriomote, Okinawa), it is believed that the characters began to be used for "tanuki" instead starting around the Japanese feudal era. Historically, this has been a source of confusion and misleading translations between the two languages.

In Japanese slang, Tanuki kao ("raccoon dog face") refers to women with wide-set eyes, a wide forehead, full lips and a round shape. Conversely, kitsune kao, or "fox face" refer to women who have a narrow face having close-set eyes, thin eyebrows, and high cheekbones.

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