Bears vs makeshift wolves in aging Japan

Improvised robot wolf in Japan / Photo: ViralPress / Viral Press / Profimedia

With glowing red eyes and terrifying howls, animals cower at the sight of this beast. But this is neither an ordinary wolf nor a real one.

Originally designed to keep wild animals away from farms, authorities in Japan are now using this mechanical wolf to prevent bears from entering urban areas and attacking people, reports BBC.

The robot wolf was first used in the city of Takikawa in the fall of 2020, according to Motohiro Miyasaka, president of its manufacturer, Wolf Camus. Since then, more and more local governments order this kind of robot.

Photo by Wolf Camus

The number of bear attacks in Japan is increasing at an alarming rate, authorities say.

Experts say the main reason is that people, especially young people, are leaving rural farming villages. Many of them migrated to big cities, vacating villages or towns that were already shrinking due to an aging population.

"More and more, rural farmland in the foothills that once served as buffer zones between bears and humans is disappearing," said Shinsuke Koike, a professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology whose research centers on bears, biodiversity and forest ecosystems.

As a result, young bears have moved into unprotected forests over the decades, living closer to cities, getting used to bright lights and loud noises and becoming less afraid of people. They began to wander into residential areas as their habitat expanded from the mountains into the lowlands closer to human population. Fierce brown bears are found in the northernmost region of Hokkaido. Over the past six decades, there have been more than 150 bear attacks in Hokkaido. At least four people died and 10 were injured in 2021 – one of the deadliest years on record.

More on this topic: In Japan, brown bears are dying en masse due to a lack of salmon

Asiatic black bears inhabit the rest of Japan. They can be recognized by the marking on their chest and are less aggressive, but no less dangerous. Japan's bear population is also increasing at a time when Japan's human population is aging and shrinking. Government figures estimate there are about 12.000 brown bears in the Hokkaido region, while some experts say the population of Asiatic black bears is around 10.000.

A brown bear in Japan / Photo EPA/KIMIMASA MAYAMA

Bear sightings and incidents usually occur around April when they wake from hibernation in search of food, and then again in September and October when they eat to store fat for the winter months. However, fatal attacks are rare.

"But statistically, if the number of assaults and injuries goes up, the chances of people dying probably goes up," Koike said.

The situation has worsened due to declining yields of acorns – the bears' biggest food source – partly due to climate change. An autumn with an exceptional harvest can be bad the following year, and a bad year can be made worse when intense storms – more frequent now due to climate change – destroy crops.

Global warming may also affect oak trees in other ways. A 2015 study found that warmer weather could lead to smaller acorn crops by disrupting pollination. Oak trees usually flower at the same time, allowing for more successful cross-pollination.

But warmer spring seasons – a result of global warming – extend the flowering period and cause oak trees to bloom in a less synchronized manner. That could reduce the autumn acorn harvest by around 20%, according to Tim Sparks, a professor at Coventry University and one of the study's authors. More bad harvests could send even more bears into people's backyards in search of food.

"What we have to think about doing now is how to get the bears back into the mountains," Mr Koike said.

But there is no clear solution. The main problem, according to Tsutomu Mano, a research biologist at the Hokkaido Research Organization who spoke to local media, is that very few officials have knowledge of wildlife management, and government ministries are not coordinating well to deal with the issue.

Besides teaching people how to react during bear encounters and relying on a dwindling number of aging hunters, authorities don't know how best to handle the situation, Koike said.

Before the shrinking of rural communities and wet acorn harvests, many attacks in the past occurred when people ventured deep into the wilderness into bear territory. But now it's turned upside down, the bears are the ones who go to the areas where people live.

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