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Number of deaths, injuries from brown bear attacks in Hokkaido to hit record high this year

Hunting association members are seen moving an exterminated brown bear covered with a blue tarp in Sapporo's Higashi Ward on June 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

HAKODATE, Hokkaido -- The number of deaths and injuries caused by brown bear attacks in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido this year has reached nine, including suspected cases yet to be confirmed, putting the prefecture on track to mark the highest number of incidents since 1962, when records began to be kept.

    Experts are warning that brown bears are living in areas closer to people as buffer zones that used to separate their habitats and residential areas have disappeared.

    "I feel bears are appearing this year more often than usual, with a spate of reports of sightings at the same locations near urban areas," said a government employee in the town of Takinoue, where the body of a suspected brown bear attack victim whose gender has not been confirmed yet was found on a mountain.

    An employee of the district forest office traveling by car found the collapsed victim bleeding heavily from head wounds around 2 p.m. on July 12 in a lump of grass along a forest road in the town, and informed Monbetsu Police Station.

    According to the police station, the clothing and other hints suggest that the victim is a woman in her 60s who lives outside Hokkaido and was visiting the area for mountain climbing. As dung apparently from a brown bear was spotted near the body, police think it is highly possible that the person was attacked by a brown bear.

    A similar case occurred earlier in the prefectural town of Fukushima. On July 1, A woman in her 70s who was working in a field near a mountain forest suddenly disappeared. Police and other people searched for her around the area and found a severely damaged body whose gender was unidentifiable near the field on the following day.

    During an on-site investigation, staff members at the prefectural Hokkaido Research Organization found a part of the body in a hole thought to have been dug by a brown bear, which was covered with grass. This method is apparently very similar to how brown bears hide food. A DNA test revealed that animal hair collected near the body was from a brown bear. After consultations with relevant organizations, the Hokkaido Prefectural Government intends to announce the case as a brown bear attack.

    The site of the incident is in a quiet fishery district with houses lined up along a national road. Many residents are elderly, and there are also several vacant houses. A woman in her 80s who lives alone said with a troubled look on her face, "I've never heard that they attack humans."

    "Brown bears are living very nearby to humans and people haven't noticed this because deserted cultivated land has expanded due to depopulation and buffer zones that used to separate residential areas and brown bears' habitats have disappeared," said Tsutomu Mano, a 61-year-old expert on brown bears from the Hokkaido Research Organization. Citing a bear attack incident in the prefectural capital of Sapporo in which four people were injured on June 18, Mano added, "The Sapporo case may be considered unusual, but there are common causes in incidents involving brown bears, and they can happen anywhere in Hokkaido."

    In April, a man was killed by a brown bear while he was picking wild vegetables in the town of Akkeshi, and a male hunter was injured by a bear in the city of Furano. In June, another man was injured by a brown bear while he was conducting land survey work in Akkeshi.

    Over the years, there have been several fatal attacks on humans by brown bears in Hokkaido. The highest number of yearly victims was eight in 1964. If the accidents in the towns of Takinoue and Fukushima are determined as caused by brown bears, the number will mark a record high this year.

    Mano said that it is problematic to throw away food outdoors, dump raw garbage illegally and leave agricultural crops outside because those acts attract brown bears to areas where humans live. He emphasized, "It's necessary to install electric fences to keep bears away from agricultural crops and to manage deserted cultivated lands by cutting down trees that produce fruit and mowing grass."

    In 1990, the Hokkaido Prefectural Government abolished its policy of culling some bears every year, which began in 1966, in a move aiming to protect brown bears and to co-exist with them. Since then, the brown bear population has apparently increased by 1.8 times.

    However, Masaaki Kadosaki, 82-year-old head of the Sapporo-based Hokkaido Wildlife Laboratory, explained, "Rather than the population increase, the reason for the rise in victims is that brown bears are no longer afraid of humans because culling with hunting rifles has been replaced with capturing the animals using box traps due to the aging of hunters and other factors."

    (Japanese original by Kohei Shinkai, Hokkaido News Department Hakodate)

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