Saturday, August 18, 2018

Bears in Japan

Four brown bears have been successfully transported from a museum in Hokkaido to a wildlife park in England. | GETTY IMAGES

Japan’s bears are widely vilified and little understood

  by Philip Brasor  Contributing Writer

On Aug. 6, the BBC aired a story about four Ussuri brown bears being successfully transported from a museum in Hokkaido to a wildlife park in England. In the story, a British organization called Wild Welfare said it had become “concerned” about the animals’ living situation at the Ainu Museum, where they had been kept in old, cramped cages for most of their lives, which one member said is “sadly reflective of the conditions that many captive bears in Japan are in.”

The BBC treated the story as breaking news, but in Japan few news organizations covered it. Jiji Press, which reported the story from the United Kingdom, mentioned that Ussuri bears are “endangered,” and explained that the museum was incapable of caring properly for them. The Hokkaido Shimbun reported that foreign visitors to the facility had complained about the small enclosures for the bears, and that the museum decided to give them to the wildlife park because it has a “better environment.” The newspaper also mentioned that the museum was closed in March for long-term renovations, and NHK said the bears would not be part of the new exhibits. They also pointed out that Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, look on bears as a kind of deity.

Of the top 10 search results for the word “bear” recently seen on the Hokkaido Shimbun website, nine are articles that present the animals in a more or less negative light. Bears are the largest land mammals in Japan and have been known to attack humans and pets, although experts insist they instinctively avoid people and only become aggressive when their cubs are threatened or they are cornered or attacked themselves.

Bear attacks are always big news in Japan — even sightings of bears are worthy of national attention. In the past few weeks there have been several reports of bears possibly killing domestic animals in eastern Hokkaido. A dairy farmer in the coastal town of Rausu said one of his goats was missing, presumably dragged away by a bear. A fisherman in the same town told police he saw a bear “burying” his dead dog. A different bear entered a village in southern Hokkaido earlier this month and wouldn’t leave even when authorities “shone floodlights on it.” Eventually, they used fireworks to scare it back into the woods.

That bear was lucky. Usually, if one shows up in a populated area it is summarily killed. According to the Japan Bear and Forest Society, 3,779 bears were killed nationwide last year. In contrast, 108 persons were injured in bear attacks and two killed.

A July 26 article in the Hokkaido Shimbun reported on an “emergency meeting” in Sapporo where various local governments discussed the sightings. Apparently, bear sightings have increased in and around Sapporo, although it’s possible that everyone is seeing the same bear. As one participant pointed out, a local ordinance in 1990 made it illegal to kill bears that were just coming out of hibernation, so since then it’s possible that bear numbers have increased. Or maybe these are juvenile bears who are trying to avoid adult bears. Or maybe they are attracted by human refuse, even if bear droppings found in the mountains indicate that there is enough food in the wild — bears almost never come to town when they have enough berries and acorns and salmon.

In the end, no one could answer these questions definitively because no proper studies of bear activity had been carried out and no dedicated bear experts were present at the meeting. 

Nevertheless, a representative of the Hokkaido Research Organization recommended that the city “regularly exterminate” bears, while also suggesting that measures be carried out to “prevent bears from raiding garbage stations.”

The point of the meeting was to collect information in order to come up with solutions to the perceived bear infestation problem and enlighten the public about it, but it may have had the opposite effect. Anyone who reads the article will come away thinking that bears are a menace, and, as a matter of fact, the media seem to have a stake in keeping it that way. The only good bear is a dead or captive one, and in the latter case the state of captivity doesn’t seem to matter, as the situation at the Ainu museum showed.

The Japan Bear and Forest Society is dedicated to fighting these prejudices, starting with the fact that certain species of Japanese bears are on “vulnerable” or “endangered” lists, something the press rarely talks about. The group polices the media on these matters. Last month, they sent a letter to Fuji TV about its long-running variety show “Unbelievable,” which dramatizes and analyzes shockingly true tales. The Japan Bear and Forest Society read a preview of a segment to be aired on July 19 about a famous 2009 bear attack in Gifu Prefecture that left nine people injured. 

The group feared that the segment would “spread bias and misunderstanding” about bears and asked the producers to either cancel it or ensure that the content was balanced and complete.

The segment was ominous in places, with newspaper accounts of bear attacks and footage of enraged, caged animals. And the reenactment of the incident itself was dramatic and violent — more like “Jaws” than an episode of “BBC Earth.” A clumsily rendered CGI bear is shown viciously attacking one tourist after another at a remote mountain lodge before being trapped and killed by hunters. Celebrities watching the drama in the studio made distressed, fearful noises throughout.

To its credit, the segment did end with an expert theorizing about this particular bear’s unusual behavior, saying that its panic was caused by a unique cascade of factors. And the celebrities, in the end, expressed more sympathy for the bear than they did for its human victims, all of whom survived. The bear, as one of them said, acted according to its nature. The trouble is, so were the show’s producers.


The bears that became fishermen's friends

On Japan's Shiretoko Peninsula brown bears and fishermen have become relaxed in each other's company, as they share in the spoils of the annual salmon run

BBC  by Zoe Gough 21 June 2015
As the largest living land predators in the world and capable of running at speeds of around 30mph (48kmph), brown bears can be extremely dangerous.

Attacks on humans can be fatal and are more likely if bears are surprised or someone comes between a mother bear and her cubs.

Yet on the Shiretoko Peninsula of Hokkaido, Japan – an area recognised for having one of the planet’s most densely packed brown bear populations – bears are no longer feared by the people living there.

Two hundred bears share the peninsula with seasonal fishermen (credit: Graham MacFarlane)
Two hundred bears share the Shiretoko Peninsula with seasonal fishermen, both are dependent on the autumn salmon run (credit: Graham MacFarlane)

For part of the year 200 bears share the remote wilderness with seasonal fishermen who, like the animals, are dependent on the autumn salmon run.

The bears roam freely around the small base used by the men, a surprisingly relaxed co-existence captured by the BBC series Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands in the clip HERE.

“It’s a part of our life. Even though bears appear, they just pass by around here. We are not scared of them, it is just natural,” explains Mr Oose, a fisherman with 50 years' experience on the peninsula.

In the past bears that came too close were hunted (credit: Graham MacFarlane / BBC)
In the past bears that came too close to the fishermen's base were killed by hunters (credit: Graham MacFarlane / BBC)

Living side-by-side with each other hasn’t always been so harmonious, though. In the past, fishermen would ask hunters to kill any bears that came too close to their camp and there is still evidence of an electric fence that was once used to keep bears out.

But gradually the fishermen grew to realise that the bears weren’t as threatening as they once feared.

“It did take time, many years, in fact. We used to make loud noises by hitting an oil drum whenever we saw bears because we were frightened. However, the bears didn't seem to be alarmed by the sound and they didn't go away. But they didn't approach in order to attack us either,” Mr Oose says.

Cubs are taken to the fishermen’s base by their mothers (credit: Graham MacFarlane)
Cubs are taken to the fishermen’s base by their mothers, to teach them how to behave around humans (credit: Graham MacFarlane)

“There are a lot of bears now, but bears don't do any harm to human beings, and we don't do anything to them either.”

The fishermen have now learned to stare at any bear that gets too close, as well as to pay attention to warning signals given by the bears. Cubs are also taken to the fishermen’s base by their mothers, for what could be thought of as 'lessons in how to behave around humans'.

It is this long-established relationship that allowed cameraman Graham MacFarlane to film the bears’ salmon hunting skills at close quarters.

The bears cause alarm when they go into bordering towns (credit: Graham MacFarlane)
The bears’ boldness around humans causes alarm when they go into the towns that border the peninsula (credit: Graham MacFarlane)

“At first it was quite intimidating leaving my vehicle to try and get good filming positions, especially after seeing how fast they are when hunting salmon in the river. At a rough guess I estimate the bear could run four times faster than me over the rocks and pebbles of the beaches and river beds,” he tells BBC Earth.

“The first few days I stayed very close to my vehicle just to feel my way with how they might react. After this time I became a lot more confident and ventured a little further from the car to get better filming positions but I always had my escape route in mind, just in case.”

While this unique relationship may be flourishing in a protected environment for animals, the bears’ boldness around humans does cause alarm when they venture into the urban areas that border the peninsula.

Fireworks are used to scare bears away from towns (credit: Graham MacFarlane)
Fireworks and rubber bullets are used to scare bears away from towns (credit: Graham MacFarlane)

“When [bears] get into town and walk around it causes trouble and they have killed a bear in the past for this behaviour,” says Masami Sugano, who has conducted research into the bears for the Shiretoko Nature Foundation.

“For this reason, if the bears get too close, they try to scare them off by using fireworks or rubber bullets and teach them to fear humans.”

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