Japan’s Bear Crisis: Rising Attacks Prompt Hunt Restrictions Easing

Japan is facing a significant increase in bear attacks, leading the government to consider easing restrictions on shooting the animals in residential areas. In the year leading up to April, the country recorded 219 bear attacks, six of which resulted in fatalities. This trend has continued in recent months, with bears increasingly encroaching on human settlements and even viewing humans as prey.

The growing bear population stems from Japan’s aging and shrinking human population, particularly in rural areas. This has resulted in the once-separate habitats of humans and bears increasingly overlapping, leading to dangerous encounters. Current laws require police approval for licensed hunters to fire their guns, but the government plans to revise these regulations to allow immediate action if there’s a risk of human injury, such as when a bear enters a building.

While the proposed legal changes aim to address the rising threat, hunters express caution. “It is scary and quite dangerous to encounter a bear. It is never guaranteed that we can kill a bear by shooting,” said Satoshi Saito, executive director of the Hokkaido Hunters’ Association, highlighting the potential consequences of a failed attempt to kill a bear. He added, “If we miss the vital point to stop the bear from moving… it will run away and may attack other people. If it then attacks a person, who will be responsible for that?”

Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, exemplifies the escalating bear problem. The island, despite its sparse population, has witnessed its bear population more than double since 1990, with around 12,000 brown bears currently residing there. These bears are known to be more aggressive than the approximately 10,000 black bears found in Japan. Local governments have employed various strategies to keep bears at bay, including robot wolves with red eyes and eerie howls, and an artificial intelligence warning system.

In Naie, Hokkaido, authorities have offered hunters 10,300 yen ($64) per day to patrol streets, set traps, and kill bears if necessary. However, the job’s high-risk nature and unappealing compensation have resulted in few takers, particularly among the mostly elderly hunters.

The Japanese Environment Ministry’s expert panel recently supported the use of rifles to hunt bears in residential areas under specific conditions. The ministry plans to revise the wildlife protection and hunting law in the next parliamentary session. The revised law will allow hunters to fire rifles in residential areas if there’s a risk of human injury, a bear has entered a building, or one has been captured in a trap. Hunters meeting certain conditions will also be permitted to hunt bears at night.

However, some experts warn of potential risks. Hiromasa Igota, panel chair and associate professor of hunting management at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, expressed concerns about the need for skill, caution, and responsibility, stating, “The framework in which (hunting bears) is left to the discretion of hunting club members should be drastically changed.” Junpei Tanaka from the Picchio Wildlife Research Centre highlighted the amendment’s necessity as an emergency measure but emphasized its lack of long-term effectiveness. He advocates for protecting bear habitats to prevent them from venturing into human areas and called for national policies to improve forest environments with high biodiversity. He also stressed the need for trained government hunters to handle emergencies, a role currently absent in Japan.

Experts attribute the surge in bear encounters to factors including inconsistent availability of staple foods and rural depopulation. The decline in rural populations, particularly of children who traditionally deter bears with their activity, has exacerbated the problem. It’s believed bears are expanding their food search area, leading them into human settlements. Climate change has also impacted the production of acorns and other bear food sources, forcing bears to venture into human settlements in search of sustenance.

Japan’s Environment Minister Shintaro Ito has pledged to take necessary steps to address the issue, including providing emergency assistance to local communities for surveying and capturing bears near human settlements. The increasing bear population, estimated at around 44,000 black bears and 12,000 brown bears in Hokkaido, combined with the effects of climate change and rural depopulation, has created a complex and urgent problem for Japan.

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