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Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Tranquilized bear preferable to dead one, residents growl

Staff writer

KYOTO -- The shooting of a bear earlier this month at a bustling Kyoto tourist spot prompted a flood of protests from outraged residents who felt the animal should have been tranquilized and returned to the wild.

This bear spotted in a bamboo grove in Kyoto's Arashiyama district was later shot as it proved too difficult to drive it back into the wild.

However, the reality is not that simple. A web of restrictions and a dearth of spacious areas for such animals to live without threat to humans make such a solution almost inconceivable, according to authorities.

A bear measuring 1.1 meters tall and weighing 80 kg, which was later found to be a 3- or 4-year-old male, was spotted in Arashiyama Park in Ukyo Ward at around 11 a.m. May 9.

Because the site is a popular tourist spot along the Katsura River and was being visited by quite a few people -- including some 200 schoolchildren from Osaka -- permission to kill the bear was promptly granted by the Kyoto Prefectural Government.

"In principle, an animal such as a bear should be driven back to the wild whenever possible. But if there is a danger to humans, we have no choice but to shoot it," said prefectural official Hiroshi Kamihagi, adding that in the Arashiyama case, officials wanted to drive the bear away but it was simply not possible.

By 12:40 p.m., officials arrived at the scene with the prefecture's permission for members of a local shooting club to kill the bear, and four club members and some 20 police officers assembled at the site.

By law, police are not authorized to shoot animals, so it was the club members who actually had to kill the bear at the request of the city.

The search team temporarily lost sight of the bear, but it was soon spotted swimming in the Katsura River.

"If it had swum to the other side, it might not have been killed because the other side is a mountainous area, and therefore the animal would have been less of a danger," Kamihagi said.

Instead, the bear came back to the busier side and was found in a bamboo grove near the north gate of Tenryuji Temple, one of Kyoto's renowned tourist spots.

"Usually, when we want to drive an animal back, fireworks or threatening shots are employed," Kamihagi explained. "But because there were still tourists and throngs of media crews around, such measures were too dangerous as the bear could have well been agitated."

So the animal, which was chewing on bamboo shoots, was placed under surveillance while the members of the shooting club suggested the use of tranquilizer darts.

The prefectural government has dart guns, but only for use against small animals like dogs and cats. Although it was discovered that the Kyoto City Zoo has dart guns usable for bears, a mountain of problems had to be cleared before they could be used.

Because the guns are intended for use solely within the zoo premises, officials there figured they needed police permission to take them out of the zoo, which later proved to be untrue. And because the darts would use powerful drugs, authorization for their use was required from the Environment Ministry.

In the end, before all these procedures could be completed, the bear was shot dead at 3 p.m., when it started to move again.

"The bear began heading toward people, and it had to be shot before it could break into a run," Kamihagi said.

From a technical viewpoint, a lot of red tape prevented the tranquilizer guns from arriving in time. However, many experts said they wonder whether the guns could have been used even if they had been ready and taken to the site.

Narito Akihisa of the city zoo said that a tranquilizer dart can only be used under certain conditions. "The animal must be caged and we leave it alone for at least 10 minutes before entering the cage to make sure it is drugged."

He added that the shooter usually closes in to a distance of no more than 10 meters from the target.

"The shot subjects animals to a great deal of stimulus and causes various reactions," Akihisa said. "And it takes some time before the drug takes effect. So the gun could not have been used outside the zoo like in the case of Arashiyama unless sound precautions were well in place to deal with any unexpected reactions by the animal."

A police officer who was at the site agreed.

"Even if a dart gun had been available," he said, "it would have been ruled out as a realistic measure because it would have posed too much danger to people nearby."

If the bear had been drugged and captured, authorities would still have had to face another problem -- where to release the beast.

Kamihagi said that even in an isolated area, such as the Ashu district of Miyama in northern Kyoto Prefecture, residents would oppose the idea of accepting bears because they would cause damage to trees and crops.

"It was beyond our imagination that such a cowardly animal like a Japanese bear would come down to the middle of town," Kamihagi said. "We have to take measures so that bears cannot come down so far. At the same time, we'd like to use this incident as a lesson to respond more promptly next time.

He added that if bears are to be caught and released in the wild, authorities need to start by securing a valid release point before worrying about using tranquilizer darts.

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