Will Japan save its black bears or follow Switzerland's sad example?
Bear stories remind me of a faded photograph that hangs in a museum in a remote corner of Switzerland. The carcass lies on the ground, flanked by the hunters who brought it down. Everyone in the village has turned out to witness the spectacle.
Right now, quite a few bear stories are coming in from Japan. On 12 October, a bear attacked a nurse, then holed up in a daycare centre near the town of Katsuyama, Fukui Prefecture. It was shot the next day. On 27 October, a female bear was shot on a patch of waste ground next to a kindergarten at Ono, a nearby town. Her two cubs were captured but died, probably of stress, before they could be released on the mountainside. Another bear was shot near Katsuyama just a few days ago. These are the stories from a single corner of just one of Honshu's 34 prefectures. They are unlikely to be isolated incidents.
It was a hot, dry summer in Japan. The weather may have shrivelled the berries and nuts that the bears live on, driving them down to the valleys. A similar pattern was seen in the hot summer of 2006. That year, 4,251 bears were shot on Honshu, accounting for an estimated one-third or perhaps half of Japan’s entire population of Asian black bears. (The northern island of Hokkaido is home to a different species of bear.)
Nobody in Japan wants to extirpate the bears. They are protected by law, but may be killed if they attack or pose a threat. Unfortunately, people and bears are crossing paths ever more frequently, as unseasonable weather and changing land-use force the animals out of their usual habitats. This is a slow-moving ecological disaster with no easy answers.
It was on 1 September 1904 that Padruot Fried und Jon Sarott Bischoff, the two hunters in the photograph above, brought their quarry down to the Engadine village of Scuol. At that time, of course, they had no idea that they’d just killed Switzerland’s last native bear. How long will it be before this scene is re-enacted in Honshu?
Japan's black bears 'face extinction' article from the The Guardian, January 2007
In Japan's managed landscape, a struggle to save the bears: a balanced and well researched overview of the plight of Japan's black bears, by Winifred Bird, October 2009