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Recent Japan bear attacks partly due to new generation unafraid of people: expert

A bear is seen in this picture provided by the Yamagata Prefectural Government, which is issuing warnings as bears have become active this season.

TOKYO -- Japan has recently seen a spate of bear attacks which one expert says is not only due to a poor acorn harvest, but a new generation of the animals that are unafraid of humans.

    A bear wandered into the Abio City Kaga shopping mall in the Ishikawa Prefecture city of Kaga on Oct. 19. It was reported to police that the bear entered through a delivery entrance, and shop employees were evacuated. The animal was shot and killed after hiding inside for some 13 hours, and the incident went viral with the hashtag "tatekomori" (holing up) trending on Twitter. Meanwhile, four people at a hot spring near the mall sustained injuries after being attacked on Oct. 17 and 18.

    A bear that was captured after it appeared in a residential area in the city of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, is seen on June 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

    In a separate case, a man staying at Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku, a traditional Japanese inn in the Gunma Prefecture town of Minakami, was attacked by an approximately 1-meter tall bear on Oct. 16. The man was walking outside to an open-air bath and suffered minor injuries after he was bitten in places including his left arm and right leg.

    Furthermore, a woman working in a field in the Niigata Prefecture village of Sekikawa was attacked by a bear on Oct. 1. The bear mauled her face, the side of her stomach and elsewhere, and she died 10 days later.

    According to the Ministry of the Environment, in fiscal 2019 Asian black bears and brown bears attacked 157 people and 6,285 of the animals were captured for causing harm -- both record highs in the last 10 years. This fiscal year, 60 people had been attacked and 3,207 bears captured as of August.

    An official at the ministry's Wildlife Division found that the reasons behind bear attacks "differ by regions, but the poor harvest of acorns and nuts in fiscal 2019 could be a cause."

    But Kazuhiko Maita, 72-year-old chairman of the Hiroshima-based nonprofit organization Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, is worried about explanations other than those provided by the ministry official. "Although bad acorn and nut harvests are the main cause (of bear attacks), there is a deeper reason," he said. According to Maita, a new generation of bears unafraid of humans has increased in number over recent years.

    A sign saying that a bear has entered a building is seen in front of the Abio City Kaga shopping mall in the city of Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture, Oct. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Akihiro Fukao)

    "Over the last 20 years or so, untended woodlands near populated areas have been left to become wilder. Trees have grown, making the areas look as if they are deep in the secluded mountains. Young bears have inhabited those areas, and are now living closer to where humans are. Those kinds of bears are completely used to the noises human society makes, including car sounds, and aren't scared of us. If the acorn harvest is bad like it has been this year, they immediately come into people's living spaces," he explained.

    Maita also touched upon the danger from bears that appear in autumn. "Bears that come out in fall are bigger in size than ones appearing in spring. They can attack a large group of people, and tend to inflict severe injuries. Furthermore, bears that come into human habitats know that they are in full view of people, and try to eliminate (without hesitation) anyone moving in the way they are headed," he said.

    In the event that a person does come in to direct contact with a bear, Maita says it is essential for them to stay stone-still and avoid being noticed by the animal. He explained, "If you know you're about to get attacked, duck in the corner of a wall, a small dip in the land or a gutter to reduce the body area within the bear's reach. It is important especially to hide your neck and stomach."

    This photo provided by Gifu Prefecture shows government officials conducting research on the state of acorn growth.

    Maita says people need to be on guard until snow falls on the plains and bears go back to the forest.

    He also appealed for measures he says are necessary to prevent bears entering human habitats. "Unkempt, undeveloped woodlands near populated areas are continuing to increase, and new generations of bears have come to live near humans. This is a structural problem, and probably will continue to be an issue that needs tackling. It is difficult to implement countermeasures, but one method is to mow the grass on the routes bears enter from. As bears don't like bright places that lack thickets, they won't enter from those routes anymore."

    (Japanese original by Shu Furukawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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