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Central Japan 'bear dogs' on duty to keep humans and ursine interlopers safely separated

Karelian Bear Dogs Elf, left, and Rela are seen with handlers on the grounds of the Picchio conservation NPO in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, on July 6, 2020. (Mainichi/Mari Sakane)

KARUIZAWA, Nagano -- Can humans and bears coexist? That is the hope of nonprofit conservation and nature tour organization Picchio, which has just debuted two additions to its Karelian Bear Dog squad -- dogs trained from puppyhood to scare any ursine interlopers back into the forest in this central Japan resort town.

With their tremendous barking whenever they see a bear, the dogs help teach the wild animals that it is dangerous to approach human settlements. This in turn means no bears need be killed for locals to feel safe.

The forests of Karuizawa, nestled at the foot of Mount Asama, are replete with shoots, mountain greens and other tasty morsels favored by bears. There are a lot of places in the area where bear and human habitats overlap. Picchio, committed to both protecting people and preventing the local bear population from dying out, is engaged in conservation work such as tracking bears' movements with electronic tags.

In 2004, the Picchio team took delivery of their first Karelian Bear Dog from a training facility in the United States. The dog, named Bullet, was the first of its kind to be introduced in Japan. Bullet passed away of leukemia in April 2013. He was succeeded by the female Tama and male Nanuq, both age 6, who have helped cut the number of ursine invaders in recent years.

The two new recruits are Tama's 2-year-old daughters Elf and Rela. They were the only two of a litter of six Karelian Bear Dog puppies -- the first successfully bred in Japan -- to pass the exam to take on the work of keeping bears and people safely separated.

Handler Junpei Tanaka, 46, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Their mom and uncle are still trying their best, but I sometimes think they're getting physically weaker. These two (Elf and Rela) are full of energy, and that's reassuring as a handler."

Elf wasn't breathing when she was born in 2018, and Picchio's staff worked hard to resuscitate her. Since then, she's grown up strong and healthy.

"She is the smallest and lightest of all six puppies, allowing her to be quick," said Elf's handler, 25-year-old Junta Imura. "She's got a strong desire to hunt so she reacts to a lot of animals, and she's always looking around and being fidgety, but her field sense is exceptional."

Rela, meanwhile, has apparently had a fiercely independent character since she was a puppy. She doesn't frolic or jump onto people when she sees them, but will slowly get closer and snuggle up. She has a character that "makes people fall in love with her," said one of the staff. Her handler Tanaka said, "(Rela)'s got a brave character that lets her stand up to the bears. There are times when she fails and ends up with her tail between her legs, but if she remembers (her training) properly, it clicks with her better than other dogs. She's a very good learner."

The handlers spent two years drawing out the sisters' strong points in training, and in April this year Elf managed to scare away a radio-tagged bear observed approaching a human community -- her first on-the-job success.

"We can keep the human and bear habitats separated," said Tanaka. "From Karuizawa, I want to show people that things are all right even if there are bears around. It's important to achieve results and keep showing that animals and humans can coexist. I call the bear dogs, 'Friendship ambassadors for bear-human coexistence.'"

(Japanese original by Mari Sakane, Nagano Bureau)

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