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'Bear deterrent' bells seem ineffective as casualties continue

A bear warning sign is seen near the site where a man was attacked by a bear in the Akita Prefecture town of Ugo in May 2017. (Mainichi)

Following the 2016 spate of injuries and deaths caused by wild bears in the Tohoku region, there seems to be little sign of this trend calming down in 2017, as casualties continue to occur in this part of Japan.

    In late May, a 61-year-old woman who was attacked by a bear in the city of Semboku in Akita Prefecture subsequently died as a result of blood loss. The woman was wearing "bear deterrent" bells at the time, designed to ward off the animals, but they ultimately proved to be ineffective. Experts on the matter explain that bears have developed a tolerance to sound, and that in some cases, sound has the reverse effect of actually luring the bear closer.

    According to Akita Prefectural Police, the woman who died was out collecting bamboo shoots with a friend in a mountainous area in Semboku, early in the morning on May 27, 2017. The woman later became separated from her friend, and is thought to have been attacked afterwards by a bear about 30 meters away from a national road. When she was found, she had scratches and bite marks on her head, face and left arm.

    At the time of the attack, the woman was carrying two "bear deterrent" bells. However, associate professor Kazuhiko Hoshizaki of Akita Prefectural University explains that there have been numerous cases in which people have come into contact with bears, despite carrying bells. "The bears' hearing range for picking up the sound of the bells is limited," Hoshizaki points out. Furthermore, an official from Akita Prefectural Police says that, "If you crouch down to pick some wild vegetables, then the bells won't make a sound."

    In Akita Prefecture, collecting "Nemagari" bamboo shoots between May and June is a popular pastime, and numerous people enter mountain areas around this time -- releasing bell sounds or loud radio broadcasts at the same time -- in an attempt to keep any bears at bay.

    However, according to Hoshizaki, "Bears have been increasingly exposed to artificial sounds in recent years, such as that of car engines," and are possibly less intimidated by these kinds of noises. Kazuhiko Maita, who is a director at the Hiroshima Prefecture-based nonprofit organization the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation says that, "There are many cases of bears approaching humans, upon hearing the sound of a radio." It is possible that the bear thinks that the sound implies that some kind of food is nearby.

    According to the Ministry of the Environment, it is thought that 105 people across Japan were injured or killed following an attack by a brown bear or an Asian black bear in 2016. In addition to the woman who died in Semboku, there have been casualties emerging in other prefectures such as Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Hokkaido.

    Maita says that it is possible the number of bears in the Tohoku region has increased due to an abundance of food, such as acorns and beech, available to mother bears in 2013 and 2015. It is thought that the plentiful food resulted in the healthy growth of bear cubs in the region. Subsequently, these cubs became independent, and are now "likely to come in contact with people."

    In response to this problem, the Semboku Municipal Government has asked people to not enter forests. Furthermore, Hoshizaki urges that, "If you must go into mountainous areas, then make sure you go in with other people and stay together, and also speak loudly while you are in there."

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