How to survive a bear attack in Japan

Japanese brown bear . . .

Japanese brown bear

Not so long ago I was up in Hokkaido covering preparations for the G8 summit. One side story was the trouble residents of the Shireoko National Park were having with brown bears.

You might think Japanese bears are pretty small and cuddly compared to the Northern American variety, but actually they can weigh up to 400kg.

“Shiretoko’s bear population is growing both in size and daring

Few places in the world have so many bears in such a small area as Shiretoko. A growing population of 200 to 400 Hokkaido brown bears (ursus arctos yesoensi) roam the small 70 by 20 kilometer peninsula; that’s about 10% of the total number of bears in Hokkaido. No wonder that they occasionally come into conflict with the region’s human residents.

Although the bears mostly live in the Shiretoko national park, they journey down the peninsula to towns and villages in search of food. Thanks to tourists giving them food and leaving rubbish, and throngs of nature photographers, some are losing their fear of humans. Local residents in the area (especially elderly farmers) have long been concerned about crop damage, even the risk of bear attack.

Certainly, Hokkaido’s bears are not to be trifled with. Adult females can weigh 100 to 150 kg and stand 2m on their hind legs. The largest male bear hunted to date weighed in at 400kg. “Japanese bears have an image of being small and cute, but [they] aren’t far off the size of North American bears,” says bear expert Kohira Masao of the Shiretoko Nature Foundation.

Local conservationists have been implementing counter-measures, albeit with mixed success. In 2002 they put an electric fence around Utoro’s main school, and in 2007 around the entire town of 1400 people. There are also fences to project crops but they tend to be expensive and take a huge amount of maintenance. Conservationists are planning to allow more legal hunting. There is no need for hunting quotas; thick vegetation gives the bear ample protection.

Despite local fears, and the bears’ ever closer proximity to human settlements, unprovoked bear attacks are rare (although several hunters have been killed by wounded bears). Two to four thousand bears live in Hokkaido as a whole, but there were just two deaths last year. “Bears are not that dangerous, but we shouldn’t underestimate wildlife,” says Kohira.

Kohira visits local schools to teach children what to do in the unlikely event they stumble across a bear. It’s good advice for adult residents and visitors too. “Don’t try and attract the bear’s attention,” he says. Also, “Don’t run away, they will instinctively follow you.”

“If the bear approaches within a few meters,” Kohira advises, “lie down on your stomach and cover your head and the back of your neck with your hands.” If you have a back-pack, keep it on to protect your spine. “In most cases the bear will just sniff you and go away,” adds Kohira reassuringly.”

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