Public awareness, perceptions and discourse on human-bear conflict

In document The bear as barometer: the Japanese response to human bear conflict (Page 102-107)

When discussing Japanese perceptions of the bear in contemporary society, it needs to be emphasised that for the vast majority of Japanese, who live in urban regions, the bear probably seems as remote and as relevant as the African elephant. Though many know something of the brown bear and the fact that it inhabits Hokkaidō, many otherwise well-informed and educated people may not even realise that the Asiatic black bear exists in the wild in Japan. The relatively few urban-dwelling citizens who have seen black bears are likely to have seen them in zoos or ‘bear parks’, which do little to improve awareness or knowledge of the bear and its ecosystem. Even in ‘bear country’ (upland Japan), few people have actually seen a bear, due to the creature’s generally elusive nature and tendency to avoid encounters with humans.1

While in recent decades there has been a lot more coverage of bears in the media, this has been the result of a high occurrence of ‘bear incidents’ (evidenced by the fact that the majority of reportage concerns such bear ‘incidents’), rather than the consequence of a growing interest in the bear itself. Even an individual who is interested and motivated enough to attempt to inform themselves about the bear is likely to be disappointed: the few publications written about the bear have generally been printed by local organisations (such as newspaper companies or museums) in short runs, and rapidly fall out of print, or are available only from the source of publication. Any books that may be available more widely tend to be anecdotal, and designed primarily to entertain, rather than to inform. Some literature contains information about the bear which is misleading or incorrect, as discussed in Chapter Three. In the last few years, there have been a few documentary and magazine style television programmes which have focused on the bear and the ‘bear problem’, and though informative, are likely to have been viewed only by a small audience.2 As a consequence, the predominant perception of the bear is in its role as a pest and as a potential danger to human beings, and, for the vast majority of urban-dwelling Japanese who are unaffected by such things, even this may only be a passing image from news bulletins or newspaper reports.

At the same time as this ‘bear as pest’ image is developing, there is a growing consciousness of the bear as a victim of human actions.3 Knight (2000a) refers to this paradoxical concept as that of the ‘endangered pest’, an increasingly

common phenomenon around the world. 4 It is

acknowledged by a growing number of people that the increased frequency of bear incidents is a direct consequence of the destruction of bear habitat. One incident in 2004 highlights the widespread nature and depth of empathy for the bear ‘as victim’. The incident occurred in a village in Nagano, when a bear climbed a persimmon tree and proceeded—seemingly oblivious to the commotion erupting around it—to eat the persimmon fruit from the tree (see Figure 16). After several hours of bureaucratic indecision, it was eventually shot in accordance with the instructions of Nagano prefectural officials. Images of the bear in the tree eating persimmons were shown on national television, and after news of the bear being shot was broadcast, the prefectural office was

inundated with over 100 emails and telephone calls protesting against the decision. Protests included: ‘How could you kill the bear when all it was doing was eating persimmons—it wasn’t harming anyone!’ and ‘Why couldn’t you have tranquillised the bear rather than shoot it?’ In response, officials explained that their decision was based on a potential risk to residents, though this is unlikely to have quelled the wave of criticism.5 A similar wave of public indignation arose when a sow and two cubs which had repeatedly wandered on to a golf course in a resort town in Iwate Prefecture were shot.6 Similarly, when a bear was shot in a bamboo grove in Arashiyama in Kyoto in May 2001, the authorities concerned received over fifty phone calls and emails criticising their actions.7

Empathy for bears comes not only from the urban ‘conservationists’ and animal protection advocates (referred to, often somewhat disparagingly, by ‘real’ wildlife experts, as dōbutsuaigosha

in Japanese),8 but also from hunters, farmers and other rural people who are closer to the ‘bear problem’. Hunters called in to ‘despatch’ bears that have been caught in traps sometimes express frustration that farmers do not show more understanding of the bears’ predicament (i.e., shrinking habitat and food supply) and do not do more to protect their crops and livestock, such as by installing electric fences, or by more carefully disposing of crop and other waste.9 In October 2006, a community in Saitama Prefecture was divided when a bear cub was found wandering in the town. Both the police and town and prefectural authorities recommended that it be culled. It was the local

Figure 16: A bear in a persimmon tree in Nagano (October 2004). This bear was later shot due to its perceived threat to human safety. One of its front paws was missing, probably an injury from a bear trap (source: Asahi Shinbun)

hunting association which advocated for the bear to be caught and returned to the forest. A representative from the hunting association, called in to attend the incident, appealed: ‘Bears are appearing in the town as a result of the cutting and development of the surrounding mountainous forest, therefore this [situation] is also the responsibility of humans. How can I kill this bear when it is doing nothing wrong?’10 Hunters are often acutely aware of the human causes of bear pestilence. For instance, a hunter in Tōno (Iwate Prefecture) explains that he rarely saw any bear damage before 1979, stating: ‘Bear damage started after 1979, about the same time the Forest Agency expanded coniferous plantations. If bears have enough food in the mountains, they won’t come close to town…’.11 An elderly hunter in Toyama states that bears only started appearing in human-inhabited areas since a ski resort was built in the early 1990s.12

This awareness of underlying causes of bear pestilence is also evident among the victims of pestilence. In Iwate Prefecture, the manager of a large farm had his crops of dent corn (a type of corn used to feed cattle) repeatedly raided by bears. He connected the increase in ‘raids’ to the construction of a ski field in the mountains nearby, which had involved the clear-felling of a substantial area of broadleaf forest. In the end, the farm manager felt unable to have the sow, which was always accompanied by cubs, culled. Instead, he planted an extra area of corn for them to feed on.13 Similarly, in September 2004, a large apple orchard in Hyōgo Prefecture was raided repeatedly over several nights by bears, and about 10,000 apples were eaten. After the incident, the owner of the orchard stated: ‘I have reconciled myself to it by thinking that [the apples] were a gift to the bears’. This prompted a strong response from the public nationwide: the orchard received about 500 letters from people congratulating the orchard owner for his tolerance, offering to donate money, or stating that the incident had prompted them to think about wildlife issues more seriously. The orchard owner subsequently began intensive planting efforts in the hills around the orchard, removing conifers and planting oaks in an effort to provide a more habitable environment for bears.14

Nevertheless, there is still a low level of consciousness of, and respect for, bear habitat among the general public in Japan, and this can lead to conflict, involving human injury or even death, as was reflected in the figures in Chapter Five. People who venture into mountainous areas for recreational activity often appear to be unaware that they may be in bear territory, and that they should therefore expect, or at least be prepared for, the presence of bears.15 One wildlife researcher expresses frustration about this lack of awareness among the public. On one occasion, he almost collided with a car stopped in the middle of an expressway. On investigation, he discovered that the driver, after observing a bear crossing the road in front of him, simply stopped and sat dazed and speechless in his car. Exasperated, the wildlife researcher comments: ‘we build roads through bear habitat, forcing the bear to cross roads to move...since we are driving through bear habitat, surely it is natural to see them!’16 In another incident which clearly demonstrates the lack of awareness of human

encroachment into bear habitat, a beech re-planting project on the site of a disused ski field in the mountains of

Higashichikuma District, Nagano

Prefecture, was postponed in the face of opposition from holiday-home owners who were concerned that the beech trees would attract bears and lead to attacks. (Previous to its development for ski fields and holiday-homes, the area had been beech forest and habitat to bears.) The fact that it would take up to 30 or 40 years until the saplings mast did not appear to sway concerned home-owners.17

Among upland residents who have always lived in mountainous areas, there is a stronger consciousness of bear habitat. People who have traditionally lived near bear habitats appear to understand and acknowledge more readily that it is their habitat, and respond by keeping themselves safe in simple yet effective ways. For example, until recently in Hida and Okumino (Gifu Prefecture) it was considered entirely natural to see a bear on a mountain trail, and it was similarly seen as quite usual for bears to appear and eat persimmons from the trees in the outer fields (satoyama) of the village. When children of these areas walked over the hill to attend the school in the neighbouring valley, they simply attached empty tin cans to their waist to warn off any bears which might be in the area.18

When conducting field-work in Akita Prefecture, the author was told of one case of kuma-yoke (bear- deterring) measures having an unexpected result in one upland village in Akita. When the villagers went on sansai-gathering trips, they would take a radio which they would leave switched on near their

obentō (boxed lunches) while they collected sansai. On one occasion, despite the noise of the radio, a bear ‘raided’ their picnic site, helping itself to their obentō. Subsequent to this occasion, the bear (assumed to be the same individual) would return to the site whenever it heard the radio, obviously conditioned to associate the radio with tasty obentōlunches!19

In a survey conducted in Toyama Prefecture, Hazumi and Yoshii (1994) found that people in mountain villages who have traditionally lived in bear-inhabited areas are relatively tolerant of the occasional visits by bears to feed in their fruit trees.20 The authors found it tended to be the residents in villages and towns located on the plains or at the foot of the mountains who, on sighting a bear,

Figure 17: Road-side sign warning road-users of bears (Source: The 17th Conference of Beech Forest and Hunters Association)

immediately call for it to be culled. A survey conducted by Maita (1998), in which he asked those he surveyed to state whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of negative statements concerning bears, made similar findings. The statements included ‘bears are scary’, ‘they attack people’, and ‘they are harmful’. Those surveyed lived in one of three broad geographical areas: mountain villages (sanson ), the area in the foothills of the mountains (sanroku ) and urban areas (shigaichi

). Maita found that the group of which the greatest proportion answered in the affirmative was the sanroku zone, followed by the sanson residents, then the urban residents. He explains the lowest affirmative results among the urban residents by the fact that there is a higher adherence to conservationist ideas in urban areas. In the case of the sanson and sanroku, while it is the sanson

residents who have the most frequent interaction with the bear, it is the residents at the foot of the mountains who express the most fear and negative sentiment. He explains this by the fact that, when these residents encounter bears, it is usually in the form of forestry or agricultural pestilence, particularly in years of low-mast rates (and thus as a manifestation of ‘abnormal appearances’ ijō shutsubotsu ).21 The appearance of bears is therefore seen as ‘abnormal’ and unwelcome, leading to the negative perceptions.

There is a growing consciousness, even among city or town dwellers, of the need to use deterrent measures when hiking or pursuing other activities in the forest. Kuma-yoke suzu (bear- deterring bells, see Figure 18) are increasingly being sold not only in specialist outlets, but also outdoor goods shops, and their use is becoming more common. For instance, when conducting field-work in Iwate, the author observed hikers embarking on a mountain trail in the hills near Morioka City (Iwate Prefecture) with bells attached to their ankles. The

demand for these bells has increased to such an extent that in early 2006, one of the only two makers in Japan (based in Morioka City) reported being overwhelmed by orders.22 Bear-deterrent spray is also imported and sold in various outlets, though it is perhaps only the serious outdoor-enthusiasts who take the precaution of purchasing and carrying this item.

Generally speaking, much of the discourse on the ‘bear problem’ tends to be centred around human needs, rather than the ecological role of bears within the forest ecosystem. For example, Kurisu (2001), who has published a book on the ‘bear problem’ based on his experience dealing with bear pestilence in his role at a town office in Hiroshima states:

One often hears the phrase ‘a society which can coexist with bears’. However, I wonder whether people who use this phrase have ever thought about whether bears are necessary to

Figure 18: Kuma-yoke suzu (source: Mada 72-sai jan nikki (website))

our society. For someone working in bear management in the public service, this is the question which causes the most anxiety (for me).

When I consider the reasons why we do or don’t need bears, the reasons we do not need them come to mind more readily. Bears cause a lot of pestilence, therefore for someone who is victim to that pestilence, it is natural that they think ‘we don’t need bears’.23

He goes on to explain that the Japanese wolf, which was hunted (and poisoned) to extinction, was probably considered to bring no benefits to humans by the people of the time. However, he points out, it is only now, with the exponential increase in deer numbers, that it has become apparent that the wolf functioned to keep a balance in nature. He goes on to state that, in the same way, the bear may also have such ‘hidden assets’ which may be beneficial to humans. For example, he suggests, it is not impossible that the bear might, at some time in the future, provide some enzyme which may be used to combat a new virus which threatens humanity.24 He concludes that, given that the current generation cannot answer the question as to why we need the bear, it should be left to the next generation to answer it. If the next generation still cannot think of a single benefit of bears for humans after further research, then it should be their right to cull every last one of them.25 This reasoning is clearly very anthropocentric, but is not infrequent in the discourse about the ‘bear problem’ in Japan: that is, if an animal does not bring any immediately obvious benefits to humans, and conversely, only brings costs, then it is of no ‘value’ to society. However, as Kurisu himself points out, if this line of reasoning is taken to its obvious conclusion, then most animals which bring no immediate benefits to humans would be culled to extinction.26 It should also be noted that that this is not the only, nor necessarily, dominant line of thinking in Japan. One prominent and well-respected NGO involved in bear research and management in the Western Honshū region, noted in the previous chapter (Nihon Tsukinowaguma Kenkyūjo) states as the one of the fundamental precepts of the organisation: ‘We do not believe there is a need to search for a reason for the bear’s existence.27

In document The bear as barometer: the Japanese response to human bear conflict (Page 102-107)