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Niigata bear sightings, attacks spike due to food shortages

A bear peers out from a cedar tree outside a house in Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, on May 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Shigeharu Asami)

NIIGATA -- A food shortage ahead of hibernation season is likely fueling a surge in bear sightings and even serious attacks on people in populated areas in this prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast.

According to Niigata Prefecture's environmental planning division, there have been 646 sightings of live bears or traces of the animals reported from April 1 to the end of September -- about 100 more than in the same period in 2018. Furthermore, there have been at least five bear attacks since the start of September, and authorities are urging residents to be on the alert for the animals.

In one incident on Sept. 25, a jogger in his 40s was attacked on a prefectural road in the city of Minamiuonuma. The bear left the man with serious claw wounds requiring two weeks in hospital. On Oct. 2, a man in his 20s was mauled as he was getting into his car outside a house. He was bitten by the animal multiple times, including on his right wrist.

"This year, we're seeing a lot of attacks not in the deep mountains, but in places where there are regularly people around," a member of the environment division said.

The rise in bear sightings appears to stem from a combination of a bumper wild nut crop in 2018 and this year's scarcity. Normally, nut-bearing trees will produce abundant fruit for three to four years, followed by three to four years of poor yield.

2018 was an abundant year, including for the beech nuts that make up a large part of the bears' diet. With plenty of nutrition available, female bears are thought to have had more cubs, increasing the area's bear population. However, this left more bears scrounging for less food when the nut crop came up short this year, and it appears likely this scarcity has pushed the animals to look for food close to human settlements ahead of their winter nap.

"Big bears live deep in the mountains, while the foothills are home to young animals. If the big bears come down to the foothills looking for food, this pushes the younger ones into what are usually buffer zones between bears and humans," noted Kazuhiko Maita, director of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, a nonprofit organization.

The prefecture's environment section is calling on people to take precautions to avoid encounters with the animals. First, when heading out for a mountain hike, bring a bell, radio or some other noise-making device to let bears in the area know that there are humans around. Furthermore, people should avoid heading into the mountains alone or in the early morning and late afternoon, when bears are most active.

Additionally, residents with persimmon, chestnut or other trees in their yard of interest to a hungry bear should pick the fruit immediately. People are also encouraged to keep long grass and other concealing vegetation well-trimmed, as bears use it to hide.

If you come face to face with one of the animals, you should retreat slowly making sure never to show your back to the bear. This is rule No. 1 of surviving a bear encounter, as they will instinctively chase down anything that turns away from them. Caution is also required even if the bear is a cub. Cubs do not wander around alone, meaning the mother is almost certainly nearby and could attack to defend her young.

Bears view humans as invading their territory. It is recommended that people consult the prefecture's homepage to see if there have been any bear sightings on their planned walking routes, and maintain an extra degree of caution.

"A lot of people visit the mountains in autumn, to see the foliage, pick mushrooms and gather wild chestnuts. They will have to be extra careful," commented Maita.

(Japanese original by Yosuke Tsuyuki, Niigata Bureau)

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