10.6 Media and public opinion

10.6.2 Public opinion

Although somewhat dated, an opinion survey of the voting public in Iwate Prefecture conducted by the Iwate Nippō company in 1993 provides some insight into public opinion concerning the issue of bears in Iwate. Respondents were asked what approach should be taken to manage bears. 31.9 per cent chose ‘bears cause damage to crops and attack humans, so control killing cannot be avoided’; 38.7 chose ‘conservation policies such as [further] restrictions on the hunting period’; and 23.3 per cent chose ‘bears should not be killed under any circumstances, but returned to the forest’. In total then, 62 per cent of respondents supported some form of conservation policy, which, when further broken down in terms of age-group, showed that younger respondents tended to be more supportive of conservation policies: 79.8 per cent of those in their twenties and 73.7 of those in their thirties were supportive of conservation policies, in contrast to only 49.1 per cent of those in their sixties or older. The occupational breakdown of respondents is also enlightening: 50 per cent of those employed in the agricultural, forestry or fishing industries responded that ‘control-killing was inevitable’, while between 60 and 70 per cent of ‘housewives’ or ‘salaried employees’ supported conservation measures.113

A survey conducted in the same year to ascertain the level of public knowledge regarding the bear indicates that general knowledge about the bear was very limited. Only ten per cent of the more than 900 people surveyed correctly guessed the bear’s average weight (80 kilograms), while 40 per cent guessed 250 kilograms, and 21 per cent guessed 350 kilograms. In addition, 41 per cent of respondents thought that the bear ate meat (from animals such as rabbits and deer) as its primary source of food.114 Thus, a large proportion of respondents thought that the bear was a largely carnivorous creature three to four times larger than the average adult human. Such misconceptions on

the part of an ill-informed public are likely to impede the success of a conservation approach to the management of bears. Clearly, someone who believes the bear is a large, dangerous and carnivous creature is more likely to be antagonistic towards efforts to protect either the bear or its habitat.

A study conducted in 1999 (Fujihara, 2000) in two villages in the Tōno area found, not unexpectedly, that where attacks causing injury to humans occur in a particular area, the attitude of residents towards bears becomes predominantly negative.115 Following the fatality in Tōno in June 2001, attitudes towards bears hardened both among residents and municipal government officials alike. Bears were control-killed after simply being sighted near residential areas, whether or not any damage was evident. Some municipal offices in Iwate requested that the process for authorising trapping and control-killing be delegated to municipal governments so that municipal government officials would be able to respond more quickly to any actual or perceived threat posed by bears in their area. While not granting this request outright, the Prefecture allowed for local authorities to by-pass the permit process in emergency situations, as noted above.

Bear-related anecdotes in the above-mentioned Iwate Nippō series demonstrates the complexity of the dynamics among the human parties in human-bear conflicts. For example, the journalist recounts an incident in which a bear had been repeatedly seen wandering around near a ‘service area’116 on the Tōhoku Highway which runs north-south through Iwate Prefecture. Officials at the regional Japan Highway Public Corporation offices wanted the bear culled and had already applied and received a permit from the Prefecture to do so. However the hunter who had been called in to cull the bear had a different view on the matter: ‘That is only a bear cub. It should just be sent back to the forest’, he insisted. The hunter finally acquiesced, but was actually moved to tears when at last he shot the bear, which at 35 kilograms, was indeed only a yearling. The hunter later commented: ‘If a bear appears in the open like this, it is usually either because it is hungry or because it is the mating season and it is looking for a mate. Before resorting to a panicked frenzy at the appearance of a bear, people should think about it from the bear’s perspective for a moment’.117 This incident shows that despite the temptation to examine wildlife conservation and management problems in terms of one group in society (such as pro-hunting groups) against another (conservationists or ‘animal lovers’), it is certainly not this simple. In Japan, it is often hunters, particularly those who have experience hunting or culling bears, who have the highest levels of understanding of the bear, its behaviour, needs and pressures caused by a changing environment.

Similarly, members of the public can in some cases be overwhelmingly supportive of a ‘problem bear’ being culled, while in another situation, they will show great empathy and patience in dealing with a bear in difficult circumstances. One such instance of the latter is detailed in one of the Iwate Nippō articles, where a sow and two cubs became trapped between two river embankments. Members

Figure 43: An enclosure at Ani Bear Park. (Photo: C. Knight) of the public spent five hours trying to rescue the bears before the sow finally managed to climb out unassisted, with one cub in her mouth and one clinging to her back. Subsequently, drivers waited patiently to allow the bears to cross the highway into the forest in safety. Another example is of a rescue effort involving a cub which had become separated from its mother, and then, frightened, took refuge 20 metres up a cedar tree. Members of the public arranged for a crane to retrieve the cub, before returning it to forest where its mother was last seen.118 These cases show how members of the public can be extremely empathetic when encountering a bear in distress, and spend hours of their time trying to assist. Yet if these same bears had been discovered in different circumstances (for example, wandering near a farm or near a highway service area), they are likely to become the object of fear and anxiety and demands for immediate culling. These instances show that generalisations about how different groups of people perceive or deal with bear issues fail to reflect the complexity evident in society. Responses tend to differ markedly depending not only on the individuals involved, but possibly more importantly, depending on the circumstances of the bear incident.

In document The bear as barometer: the Japanese response to human bear conflict (Page 186-188)