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Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009

MEDIA MIX

Denied bear necessities of life


About a week ago, while browsing the Internet, I came across a headline at the BBC Web site that made me pause: "Bear injures 9 at bus terminal." The first thought that crossed my mind was, "Why was a bear waiting for a bus?"

As everyone now knows, the Norikura Skyline Bus Terminal is actually at the top of a mountain in Gifu Prefecture, 2,700 meters above sea level, to be exact. That's well past the tree line, meaning it isn't a natural environment for bears. For that matter, it isn't a natural environment for bus passengers, either.

So what were both humans and a bear doing there? The humans were there because they were tourists enjoying the view. As for why the bear was there, well, we can't ask it because it's dead, having been killed by a licensed hunter.

According to a local bear expert interviewed by the Shinano Mainichi newspaper, Japanese black bears (tsukinowaguma) are naturally timid, and the only times one would attack a human is when a female is trying to protect her cubs or when one is foraging for food and a human gets in the way.

The bear in question was a male, and there was no wild food for a bear to forage in that particular area. The expert also mentioned that the amount of food — mainly acorns — available to the bear at a lower altitude was sufficient this year, the point being that there was no good reason for the bear to be where he was. So if the bear had to be killed it's the bear's own fault. Most people would probably agree with this assessment if they saw the amateur video that TV news shows keep playing and analyzing. The video shows the bear savagely mauling a man on the ground. According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, people at the site subsequently cornered the bear in a building and waited for the hunter, who allegedly shot it point blank after he arrived, execution-style, as reporters like to say.

The national media, which breathlessly covers every bear attack as if it were a zombie invasion, concluded that the killing of the bear was something that couldn't be avoided. The attitude behind this conclusion was neatly summed up in the Asahi's Sept. 22 "Tensei Jingo" column, in which the anonymous author described bears as being perfect examples of kiyo binbo, a term that translates as "jack-of-all-trades, master of none." Bears are clumsy and funny and cute, but they're also vicious animals, and when they interact with humans, the humans can get hurt.

The writer allows that people and bears are encroaching on each other's "territories," and it's difficult for both sides to "coexist" without "running into one another." But only naive people believe in coexistence within shared spaces, the writer implies, since no one can deny that a human's safety trumps a bear's well-being. Protecting bears is all well and good, but in the end they're just too dangerous.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classifies Japanese black bears as being "threatened."

Bear hunting is legal in Japan and subject to quotas, but such quotas are meaningless when people see bears near their property. In almost all such cases the animals are killed. The verb that is usually used for bear hunting is hosatsu suru, which means "catch and kill." As of July, 668 bears had been caught in Japan this year and of those, 586 were killed, according to the Japan Bear and Forest Association. At least 1,375 were killed last year. Is that a lot? In order to comprehend these statistics properly we need to know how many bears there are in the wild.

It's not a query that will elicit much of an answer from the environmental ministry, whose literature on wildlife gives up very little in the way of useful information. If you want to know about bear numbers you have to go elsewhere. In 2005, Traffic East Asia-Japan, a nongovernment organization that monitors wildlife trade, estimated that there were between 8,000 and 12,000 bears in Honshu, and about 1,000-3,000 in Hokkaido. In 2006, when a shortage of food in Japanese forests led to more than the usual number of human-bear encounters, 4,679 bears were killed, according to the JBFA, which surveyed local governments. The association assumes that more were killed but that the killings were not reported. In contrast, only 3 humans were killed by bears. Statistically speaking, which species is more dangerous to the other?

On its Web site, the JBFA explains that at this time of year bears are eating constantly in order to store enough fat for winter hibernation. Though it was unusual for the bear at Norikura to be at such a high altitude, its presence wasn't any less "natural" than the humans'. Norikura is not a residential area. The bear had just as much of a right to be on that mountain top — it probably smelled the food at the bus terminal — as the people did. The humans charged the bear and made loud noises, which caused the animal to panic and act defensively. If the people had backed up after the first attack, the bear would have probably calmed down and run away.

In any event, the bear didn't have to die. When JBFA contacted the local hunters group afterward, a representative said that the hunter who was summoned had no choice but to kill the bear "because it attacked people." In other words, it had to be punished.

This antibear disposition seems to be general among people in positions of authority. In 2004, when the Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Hokkaido was nominated to become a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, the Shiretoko Foundation said that the expected influx of tourists to the area might mean that some bears would have to be "eliminated" to keep the area "safe," a statement that revealed a total misreading of UNESCO's mission, which is to preserve designated Heritage sites for nature, not people — and certainly not for bus terminals.



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