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Fukushima nuke disaster evacuees return home to find wildlife has taken over

Local government workers install a wire fence around a house to keep out wild boars, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 27, 2017. (Mainichi)

FUKUSHIMA -- As evacuation orders for some areas near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant are gradually rolled back, residents are returning to find that in the some six years since the meltdowns at the plant, wildlife has taken over their hometowns. Looking to reassert human dominion and keep critters out of long-empty homes, a test effort has been launched to fence off entire properties.

    Increasing numbers of wild animals were born and have lived their whole lives in the built-up areas of the evacuation zone, where repopulation has gone slowly even after evacuation orders have been lifted, with only around 20 percent of residents returning. There are limits to how many animal interlopers can be exterminated, so efforts have focussed instead on separating wildlife from human settlements -- a trial-and-error process that looks likely to continue for some time.

    "Putting humans in cages sounds like a joke, but I'm happy for the fences if they can keep wild boars out," said one woman in her 40s who had returned with her husband to their home in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, as she took in the new 1.2-meter tall fence enclosing 50 square meters of the property.

    The prefectural government and other bodies have begun testing the fencing in 12 municipalities subject to evacuation orders around the Fukushima No. 1 plant -- a development the Namie woman welcomed.

    "Wild boars appear basically every night. They come in groups, and try to break into the shed. I've felt scared every day," she said. Based on the results of the test run, the town government will consider setting aside funds for fences around residential areas.

    Except for so-called "difficult to return zones" in municipalities including the towns of Okuma and Futaba -- where the Fukushima No. 1 plant is located -- the vast majority of nuclear disaster evacuation orders had been lifted by spring this year. However, boars had already used humans' long absence to move in and make themselves at home, creating shelters in urban bamboo stands or in tall riverside grass, while civets, raccoons and the like had taken up residence in the ceilings of empty homes. This situation is thought to be one cause of the still very low evacuee return rate.

    Across the former evacuation zones, bushes and thickets have been severely trimmed as part of the nuclear decontamination process, and heavily damaged buildings are being torn down, making it harder for animals to hang around. However, the ratio of the animals that have only ever known life in an urban environment is growing. Even if the animals make fewer daylight appearances downtown, getting them to move to the mountains will be no easy task.

    In Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, the town government has entrusted wild animal control to the local hunting association, which has set up traps in about 30 locations. However, more than half of the association's 12 members are aged 60 to 70, while some continue to live outside the town, curtailing the scope of the group's activities.

    "The only way forward is to identify places that returning residents use that are also being lived in by animals, and explore efficient, long-term countermeasures," said Kei Okuda of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.

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