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News Navigator: Why are bears appearing in residential areas across Japan?

This photo provided by the Fukui Prefectural Government shows an Asian black bear.

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about recent bear attacks in Japan.

    Question: I've seen a lot of news lately on bears being spotted in areas across Japan. What is behind this?

    Answer: There have been many cases of Asian black bears appearing in residential areas since this autumn, mainly in the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan, and the Hokuriku and Koshin regions in central Japan. A bear was spotted near a school in the central Japan city of Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, and in some communities in the city, parents drove their children to and picked them up from school following bear sightings. According to the Ministry of the Environment, there were 13,670 cases nationwide where bears were spotted between April and September -- a record high in the last five years. There have also been cases where bears attack people, resulting in injuries or death. Consequently, the national government has pledged to work on preventative measures against bear attacks.

    Q: But don't bears live in the mountains?

    A: Bears usually inhabit mountainous areas and woodlands, and rarely come to areas where people live. Although they are omnivorous, plants make up the main part of their diet, and they eat bamboo shoots, mountain vegetables, and nuts like acorns. However, bears need massive amounts of food in the autumn, in preparation for their hibernation from around December. It is believed that bears have shown themselves in residential areas in search of food, as nuts from beech, mizunara oak, and other trees that usually bear fruit in autumn have produced a scarcity of crops across Japan this year.

    Q: What kind of measures should be taken?

    A: The first thing is to avoid going near places where bears have been spotted. Bears are also very timid despite their appearance, and although they do not have a natural tendency to attack people, they may attack if they are surprised by a sudden encounter with a human. It is important to let bears know of your presence early on by walking while talking in loud voices, or by wearing whistles or bells in the mountains. In addition, as bears are said to have a sharp sense of smell which is 100 times greater than that of humans, people must be careful about cleaning up food scraps and other garbage.

    Q: What happens to bears that are captured?

    A: Many of them are put down. Bears have apparently already become extinct in the southwestern Japan region of Kyushu, and only a dozen or so have been reportedly found on the island of Shikoku in western Japan due to extermination. How we can build a society where humans and bears coexist is seen as a perpetual challenge.

    (Japanese original by Toshiyuki Suzuki, Science & Environment News Department)

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