Bear-Inflicted Damage: Measures Needed to Keep Bears away from Human Habitations

There has been a recent spate of cases across the country in which bears have appeared in human territory and inflicted damage. Measures must be introduced to maintain an appropriate distance between people and bears so that a balance can be struck between conservation and management.

On the morning of Oct. 19, four women, including a high school student, were injured in a series of bear attacks in the central part of Kita-Akita, Akita Prefecture. The women’s injuries reportedly included bites to the head and claw-related wounds on their back and shoulders.

Presently, bears are becoming increasingly active as they stock up on nutrients to prepare for hibernation. Some local governments are urging residents to be especially wary of the animals. People who go into mountainous areas to gather wild vegetables and people who live in such mountainous locations must be particularly vigilant.

About 109 individuals — mainly in the Tohoku region — were attacked by bears from April to September, the highest figure ever recorded. This spike is thought to be related to a poor crop of Japanese beech nuts and other plants that serve as food for bears, and a general increase in the animal’s population.

In Japan, brown bears live in Hokkaido, while black bears thrive in Honshu and Shikoku. Following long years of efforts to cull them, Hokkaido’s brown bear population declined. However, since 1990, there has been a new drive focusing on their protection.

As a result, the bear population has recovered, but injuries to people and livestock, as well as damage to agricultural crops, have increased, becoming a social problem. Bears are increasingly encroaching upon human settlements, and a number of so-called “urban bears” — which have a tendency to enter residential areas — have appeared.

If these large mammals repeatedly encroach upon people’s daily life, it will be impossible to live with peace of mind. Bears are naturally timid and are said to flee or hide if they sense the presence of people. Why are they increasingly intruding into human habitations?

The main factor in this regard may be due to changes within local communities. In the past, “satoyama” — rural forest landscapes with farmlands and irrigation ponds — served as a natural barrier between bear territories in remote mountainous areas and human settlements, with local residents keeping the undergrowth in check. Doing so facilitated easy visibility, and the process is thought to have played a role in preventing bears from approaching places populated by people.

However, as depopulation is progressing in rural areas, it has become difficult to manage satoyama regions. Trees and plants have become overgrown and an environment similar to remote mountains has been created. As a result, the “buffer zones” separating bears and people have shrunk.

To ensure peaceful coexistence, it is necessary to draw a line between bear-friendly, remote mountain regions and buffer zones that include satoyama and human settlements. Satoyama areas must be revitalized swiftly to allow them to serve anew as buffer zones.

It is the responsibility of local governments to establish systems to capture and exterminate bears when they enter human habitats. But with hunters declining in number, questions will be asked about how such human resources can be secured.

Bears reportedly haunt particular locations if they discover a food source. It is therefore crucial to ensure edible waste is not discarded in mountainous areas, establish electric fences around cultivated land, and manage abandoned farmland.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 20, 2023)