The number of people injured or killed in bear attacks in Japan this year exceeded 200 for the first time, as experts warned of more encounters during the winter, when the animals are supposed to hibernate.
The environment ministry said 212 people were attacked in the eight months from April, including 30 in November alone, according to the public broadcaster NHK.
Six people died, including an angler in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido whose partial remains were found close to a 1.5-metre tall bear. The bear was shot dead and DNA testing later confirmed the remains belonged to the missing man.
The overall injury tally since March is well above the previous record of 158 reported in the 12 months from April 2020, media reports said.
As Japanese authorities struggle to address the rising number of encounters between humans and bears that have left their natural habitat in search of food, experts urged people to remain vigilant even during the coldest months.
While bears generally hibernate from late November until the spring, the scarcity of food this year means that some hungry animals will continue to forage, amid media reports of sightings in late November – once a rarity.
Although some bears were expected to hibernate earlier than usual to conserve energy, others that have not eaten enough “could keep wandering around instead of hibernating”, said Teruki Oka, a forestry expert, according to the Mainichi Shimbun.
Bears that have developed a fondness for meat, including the infamous OSO18 – the codename given to a brown bear that attacked more than 60 cows in October over a four-year period from 2019 – are particularly menacing, according to Prof Hiromi Taguchi, a bear expert at Tohoku University of Art and Design.
“They are hungry and agitated in the winter due to the lack of prey animals,” he told the Mainichi newspaper.
In Akita prefecture, where around a third of the encounters nationwide have occurred, children continue to walk to school carrying bells designed to spook the animals, while shops say they are selling out of bear repellant.
The area was the scene of two high-profile incidents this year: one in which a man lost part of an ear after finding a bear in his garage in the centre of Kita-Akita town, and another nearby in which several people were mauled at a bus stop.
In the past, bear encounters often involved people foraging in the mountains. But poor crops of beech nuts and other foods have forced the animals to venture out of their forest habitats, inevitably bringing them into more frequent contact with people in built-up areas.
“The borders between humans and bears have blurred as forested areas expand and arable land is abandoned as a result of depopulation and other developments,” Kazuhiko Hoshizaki, a professor at Akita Prefectural University, told the Nikkei business newspaper.
The environment ministry described the rise in attacks as “extraordinary” and urged people to properly dispose of household food waste, which could attract the animals, and make sure they keep doors closed. NHK recently offered viewers advice on what to do if they spot a bear.
Japan’s bear population is growing, with one recent estimate putting the number of black bears at 44,000 – compared with 15,000 estimated in 2012. That figure does not include Hokkaido, thought to be home to about 12,000 Ussuri brown bears, whose population has more than doubled since 1990.
Almost three-quarters of this year’s attacks occurred in north-east Japan, prompting the environment ministry to send experts to help local authorities capture and study the bears, the Kyodo news agency said.
Conservationists have called for more to be done to improve bears’ natural habitat, while reports of bear shootings have attracted criticism from the public.
Source : The Guardian