On the morning of Oct. 23, a 56-year-old employee at West Japan Railway was inspecting trains when he encountered an Asian black bear just outside Tsuruga Station in Japan’s northwestern Fukui Prefecture.
He escaped with just a scratch, but about 10 minutes later, the same bear fractured the leg of a worker at a nearby construction site.
Four days before the incident, a male bear entered a four-story shopping center in neighboring Ishikawa Prefecture.
Photo: Kyodo / via Reuters
The 1.3m-tall bear holed up in a storage room for 13 hours, until it was shot by a local hunting group.
Between April and September, wild bears were spotted 13,670 times across Japan, the most over a six-month period in the last five years, data from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment showed.
There are multiple factors behind the increase in sightings, said Shinsuke Koike, an associate professor of ecology at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology and deputy representative of the Japan Bear Network, which runs lectures and studies on promoting the coexistence of bears and humans.
Oak trees alternate each year between heavy and low production of acorns, a staple food for bears. This was a bad year for acorn yields and the lack of food might have driven the bears closer to civilization.
With the younger generation moving to cities, aging residents are unable to harvest crops or fruits in their gardens, which tempt starving wild animals.
The nationwide COVID-19 lockdown might also have affected the bears’ behavior, Koike said. “Bears might have expanded their areas of activity after not seeing humans around during spring and early summer.”
In some cases, the bears leave damaged property in their wake.
Yuki Tasei grows expensive grapes called shine muscats on his fruit farm in Takahata, Yamagata Prefecture.
Last month, bears ate as much as 40kg of his crop, causing ￥100,000 (US$963) of damage.
“It was the first time we had bear attacks,” he said.
Bears caused on average ￥426.7 million in crop damage per fiscal year from 1999 to 2018, government data showed.
About 572 hectares of forest were destroyed on average over each of the past five fiscal years, including when bears stripped the bark off trees as they foraged.
The transportation sector has also had run-ins with wildlife from the mountains.
“Many wild animals jump in front of running trains every year,” said Shoriki Yamazaki, a spokesman of the Kanazawa Branch of JR West.
The rail company’s data showed that there were 224 cases of trains getting delayed for more than 10 minutes over the past six fiscal years due to collisions with wild animals in the Fukui area.
Some companies are seeking solutions to keep bears away from residential areas.
Hokkaido-based Ohta Seiki has a patent pending for its mechanical Monster Wolf robot, which emits 90-decibel roars and moves its neck just like the bears’ predator.
The firm said that about 70 “wolves” have been purchased by Japanese farmers over the past three years.
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