In recent years bears have increased in numbers, expanded their range and lost their fear of people and have increasingly come in contact with them. They have traditionally been most visible between May and August when they descend from the mountains in search of food like sprouts and skunk cabbage.

In 1996, 1,725 bears regarded as pests were shot. In Kyoto, one bear cut off electricity to 850 houses when he climbed a utility pole and was electrocuted. Some bears reportedly killed for destroying crops were in fact killed so their gall bladders could be sold. Sometimes gall bladders can fetch $100 a gram. A total of 7,001 bears were killed between March 2005 and March 2007.

Hunting of brown bears was banned in 1982. Since then the sighting of the bears has increased---from 41 in 1993 to 489 in 2003---and there has been more potentially dangerous encounterers. Because they are no longer hunted brown bears don’t fear people like they used to. They no longer are fazed by noise makers, whistles or bells and have made half -hearted charges at tourists. In 2004 some footpaths were closed because of worries about bear attacks and elevated walkways were built to protect tourist in the future.

Bears have been blamed for destroying apple and permission orchards. They are particularly fond of persimmon and often raid crops in places where there is thick bush for them to hide and the population is made up primarily of relatively non-threatening elderly people. A study of bears in Tochigi prefecture found that bears there lived mainly on persimmons and cherries from village orchards rather than nuts found in the mountains.

A lack of food and unseasonably warm weather boosted bear sightings in the winter of 2006-2007. Many bears were spotted when it was thought they should be hibernating. A large number of motherless cubs were also seen which may have been due to their mothers being killed.

In the 2000s, black bears began terrorizing the forest-surrounded town of Iwaizumchi in Iwate Prefecture. The problem started when the animals began raiding cow barns in search of food. By 2009, about 40 bear-related problems were being reported a month. Farmers that suffered the most were given bear detecting devices and bear repellants that produced loud noises to scare the bears away. High voltage electric fences were also installed and hunters were hired to kill the bears.

Bears in Urban and Residential Areas in Japan

Bears are popping up more and more in residential areas. Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “In October 2010, a black bear appeared in a park in a busy district of Uozu, Toyama Prefecture, about 100 meters from JR Uozu Station. Police officers and members of a local hunting association pursued it through a residential area near the park. The bear, estimated to be 5 years old, was finally shot dead after it ran into a house. As the gunshots rang out, local residents were in an uproar.” [Source: Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

“In Kudoyamacho, Wakayama Prefecture, on the same day, a bear escaped from an animal trap in a field. In Iidemachi, Yamagata Prefecture, three bears that seemed to be a family were spotted in a residential area on Thursday. A couple days before in Sharicho, Hokkaido, two brown bears gave local residents a scare when they appeared in a central district of town.” Bear sightings are being reported almost every day between April and September. A total of 2,366 bears had been caught in that time, most of which were later killed.

Dealing with Pesky Bears in Japan

In 2004, the year of a high number of bear attacks, people became very scared. Rural people began wearing bells and other noisemakers. Children were escorted to schools. Elderly people traveled in groups. After numerous bear sightings in 2010, Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Patrols have been organized and other precautions taken in areas frequented by bears...The city government of Uozu has issued an emergency warning about wild bears, and the town government of Iidemachi has advised residents to refrain from going outdoors in the morning and evening, when bear sightings have been most common. The Iidemachi government has given all local primary and middle schools loud bells to drive away bears, and some primary schools have asked parents to transport their children to and from school by car.” [Source: Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

“Sakue Ono, 60, who cultivates apples in Numata, Gunma Prefecture, sets off flares every morning to scare away any bears that might be near his property. He also installed electric fences, but even that has failed to stop bears from intruding in his field.” "I'm afraid the bears might have learned how to get around the fences. For example, maybe they push a fence over by using their hip, so the thick fur protects it from electric shock," he told the Yomiuri Shimbun. [Ibid]

“A local government in Kyoto Prefecture has set up buffer zones between forests and residential communities by clearing undergrowth at the foot of mountains, where wild animals sometimes hide, so that people can easily spot them. While many such trial-and-error efforts are continuing across the nation, none have been successful in totally preventing bears from approaching areas where humans live.” An official of the local government in Kyoto Prefecture said: "We're dealing with wild animals. All we can do is try every possible option, one by one." [Ibid]

In Hyogo Prefecture black bears have been trained to fear humans. Pesky bears that have frequently showed up in residential areas have been caught and frightened with firecrackers and pepper spray and other means and then released with transmitters so their movements could be monitored. After being released 75 percent of the bears avoided residential areas. Of these 62 percent did not go within two kilometers of residential areas and 12 percent came near residential area but did not enter them.

The Fukui government spent $800,000 to outfit four bears with radio collars and GPS device to monitor their progress. In Tochigi Prefecture their travel patterns are observed using a satellite designed to check the migratory patterns of whales.

Killing Pesky Bears in Japan

In 2006, another year of a high number of bear attacks, the number of black bears trapped or killed because they were pests totaled 4,737, twice as the number of the previous record in 2004. Of these 4,251 were killed at the time or destroyed later. By some estimates this was 30 percent to 50 percent of the total bear population in Japan. Most were caught in Tohuku in northern Japan and the Nagano-Niigata regions. The high number of bears wandering into areas with human populations was again blamed on low yields of acorns and natural nuts.

In October 2006, hunters in Nagano were asked to voluntarily refrain from hunting black bears out of concern that their numbers might be declining as so many bears had been killed as pests.

It is not rare for bears to be caught and killed, but there are increasingly fewer hunters doing the job. Tadashi Kawagoe, 70, is chief of a division of the Yamagata prefectural hunters association that is responsible for eliminating harmful animals. He told the Yomiuri Shimbun "There are about 300 members who can work in the prefecture, and they've been dispatched almost every day since late August. I also canceled a planned trip to deal with the bears.” [Ibid]

“Some people are stressing for the need to protect bears as wildlife? Takeda and Komazaki wrote. “In Karuizawamachi, Nagano Prefecture, a nonprofit organization called Picchio tries to teach bears of the risks of approaching populated areas, without killing them. Bears that become caught in traps are harassed for a time by barking dogs and then released back to the wild, hopefully with a lesson learned.” [Ibid]

In mid 2000s, a hunter had to be rescued after getting stuck in the cave of a hibernating bear for 24 hours in mountains in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. The hunter got stuck in the three-meter-long cave while trying to pull the bear out after killing it with a shotgun. He stayed warm by huddling next his dog. A rescue was launched after his wife reported that he had not come home.

Moon Bears Attacks

Though usually shy and cautious animals, Asian black bears are more aggressive toward humans than the brown bears of Eurasia[ and American black bears. David W. Macdonald theorises that this greater aggression is an adaptation to being sympatric with tigers. According to Brigadier General R.G. Burton: The Himalayan black bear is a savage animal, sometimes attacking without provocation, and inflicting horrible wounds, attacking generally the head and face with their claws, while using their teeth also on a prostrate victim. It is not uncommon to see men who have been terribly mutilated, some having the scalp torn from the head, and many sportsmen have been killed by these bears.

A Dr. E. T. Vere of Srinagar, Kashmir wrote of how his hospital received dozens of black bear victims annually. He wrote that, when attacking humans, black bears will rear up on their hind legs and knock victims over with their paws. They then make one or two bites on an arm or leg, then finish with a snap to the head, this being the most dangerous part of the attack. There are no records of predation on humans by Asiatic black bears in Russia and no conflicts have been documented in Taiwan. However, in India, attacks on humans have been increasing yearly, and have occurred largely in the northwestern and western Himalayan region. In the Chamba District of Himachal Pradesh, the number of black bear attacks on humans have gradually increased from 10 in 1988-89 to 21 in 1991-92. Recent bear attacks on humans have been reported from Junbesi and Langtang National Park in Nepal, and occurred in villages as well as in the surrounding forest. Li Guoxing, the second person in history to have received a facial transplant, was a victim of a black bear attack.

Bear attacks have been increasing in Kashmir since the Kashmir conflict. In November 2009, in the Kulgam district of Indian-administered Kashmir, a black bear attacked four insurgents after discovering them in its den, and killed two of them. The majority of attacks tend to occur when black bears are encountered suddenly, and in close quarters. Because of this, black bears are generally considered more dangerous than brown bears, which live in more open spaces and are thus less likely to be surprised by approaching humans. They are also likely to attack when protecting food.

In January 2007, the Hindustan Times reported: Wild bears entered populated areas in many parts of Kupwara, Baramullah, Anantnag and Pulwama in the past three months. As many as five persons including a minor child were killed and over 30 wounded in the attacks by them on residents. Last month, a black bear attacked a 70-year old person Abdul Gani Rather at Shariefabad village in Tral and injured him critical, who later died in the hospital. The residents chased the black bear and attacked hiom with lathis and stones. The irate mob later burnt the wild animal live. Four persons were arrested for killing the bear. Two months back, a bear snatched a child in Kupwara, whose body was recovered the next morning from a nearby field. A woman in Kondabal village, around 27 km from Srinagar, was also attacked by a wild bear, who succumbed to injuries at a hospital. [Source: Hindustan Times, January 12, 2007]

Wildlife officials say that there had been a substantial increase in wild animal population in Jammu and Kashmir as poaching and hunting has stopped in Kashmir with the rise of terrorism. They say that the human interference in the wild animal habitat has also increased and many forested areas have been denuded, which force the wild animals to stray into villages. They say that many areas, where wild animal usually inhabit are covered under snow and these animals come down to residential areas in search of food.

Nine people were killed by black bears in Japan between 1979-1989. In September 2009 it was reported that a black bear attacked a group of tourists, seriously injuring four, while they were waiting at a bus station in the built-up area of Takayama, Gifu in central Japan.

AFP reported: “A black Himalayan bear killed an 18-month-old boy in a zoo in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday, police said. The child, who was with his parents, tried to shake hands with the caged bear. But the animal pulled the boy into the cage and tore him apart, police said. Witnesses said the boy died in front of his screaming parents. An angry crowd tried to kill the bear but police intervened to bring the situation under control. A zoo official blamed the parents for allowing the boy to touch the animal.

Bear Attacks in Japan

People have been killed by bears in Hokkaido and the Tohuku region of northern Honshu. In May 2001 in southern Hokkaido, a 53-year-old man was killed and buried by a bear. In 2003, a man was badly mauled in the face by a bear in the Okayama area. Two deaths from bear attacks were recorded in both 1985 and 2004.

In the summer and autumn of 2004 there was an unusually high number of bear attacks. Newspapers ran headlines like “Bear Injures Four in Kimono Shop” and “Five Elderly People Injured in Three Prefectures.” Bears were caught in hen houses eating chickens and spotting in persimmon trees munching on the orange fruit. One person was killed and almost a 100 were injured, almost 10 times the usual number. There was a particularly high number of attacks in Toyama on the Sea of Japan.

In June 2004, a hiker in Nikko National Park was seriously injured in an attack by a black bear. In the same area two men were seriously injured by bear as they walked along a plank path on Ozegahara marsh. In Toyama two school children were attacked and scratched on their upper torsos. In Iwate Prefecture three people were attacked in three towns, and one person was seriously injured. In July, an 81-year-old woman suffered a broken cheek bone after she was attacked by bears as she was gathering butterburs in Akita Prefecture.

In October 2004, two people were attacked and hurt in separate attacks by bears in Hyogo and Hiroshima prefectures. In Hyogo, a bear attacked an 82-year-old woman as she gathered flowers. She suffered serious injuries in her head. The same month a pair of bears attacked three different people in separate incidents in Toyama. A 77-year-old woman and a 76-year-old woman suffered facial scratched. A 90-year-old man broke his arm.

In 2006, three people were killed by black bears and 136 were injured. This the highest number of deaths by bear attacks ever, recorded. Bears showed up in many residential areas where they had never been seen before. In September 2006, a male middle school student in Otrimura, Nagano Prefecture was seriously injured in an attack by a bear on his way to school. In October a 71-year-old man was attacked and killed in Toyama Prefecture.

In October 2005, a zookeeper died after being mauled on his head and leg by a brown bear at the Fuji Safari Park in Shizuoka. In November 2008, a bear attacked a woman at a vacation home in Karuizawamachi, Nagano Prefecture, leaving her with minor back injuries. The beare attacked the woman after jumping out of thicket of bushes and is believed to have been a cub that had just left his mother. In September 2009, a black bear attacked nine people at a bus terminal in a mountainous area of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture. Four people were hospitalized with injuries such as bite marks to the face but none were in serious condition. More than 100 people were at the bus terminal at the time.

Bear Attacks in Japan in 2010

Between April and September 2010, 82 bear attacks with 84 victims were reported in Japan. This is higher than the 52 bear attacks with 64 victims in 2009 but not as high as the 113 attacks in 2004 and 150 attacks in 2006. Of the 84 people attacked by bears, four---two in Hokkaido, one in Fukushima Prefecture and one in Tottori Prefecture---were killed.

Most of the attacks were like this one. In October 2010, in Kitaakita, Akita Prefecture, a 63-year-old man gathering mushrooms ran into three bears, apparently a family. The youngest bear bit the man on the leg, inflicting light injuries, before all three ran into the woods. [Source: Hiromasa Takeda and Takahiro Komazaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

Encounters between bears and humans are often just as scary for the bears as the people. Toshiaki Shiraishi, an official of Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo, said, "Usually making a noise or saying 'hey' or something will make a bear run away." But if a bear is agitated, taking more defensive measures could be required. "If you can't escape, squat down and curl up into a ball," Shiraishi said. "Covering your neck and the back of your head with your hands could help save you from a deadly wound." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

Causes of Bear Attacks in Japan

Many of the bear attacks have been blamed on a shortage of acorns due to typhoons and other bad weather which forced the bears into populated areas in search of food. A campaign organized by a group called the Bear and Forest Association aimed to collect acorns from parks in the cities to help feed the bears.

Some attribute the problem to: 1)a shortage of nut-bearing trees and berry-producing shrubs created as a result of artificial cedar and pine forests that don’t produce food the bear can eat; and 2) the exodus of people from the countryside, leaving inviting, quiet villages filled with lots of crops and food---often left unharvested in fields, which attracts bears--- but few young people to scare them off. In areas where there a plentiful supply of nut- and acorn-bearing oaks and beech there have been no attacks.

Allowing fields to become fallow and overgrown and the bluring of the areas of the region that demarcated the forest and farms have also contributed to the problem. This has encouraged bears to move nearer to where people live.

In 2005 there were plentiful food supplies in the mountains and relatively few bears caused mischief in places with large human populations. The number of bears trapped or killed because they were deemed as pests was less than 1,000.

Reasons for Bear Attacks in Japan in 2010

Reasons for the attacks include shortages of food in mountainous areas and a reduction in hunting. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Some experts have suggested changes in forests and farmland are also behind the spate of bear encounters. Forests in mountainous areas were once maintained by forestry workers, but this work has been increasingly neglected in recent years as people drift away from these areas. More and more farmland is being left unattended, and plants have grown among the abandoned crops. These plots are often close to residential areas and provide bears with food with cover from prying eyes.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

Iwate University Prof. Toshiki Aoi, a researcher of wild animal controls, told the Yomiuri Shimbun bears are no longer afraid of people. "With fewer hunters around, bears are no longer afraid to approach people. The current situation is basically an open invitation to bears to come into areas where people live," Aoi said.

Acorn Shortage Behind Wandering Bears

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Many experts have agreed that this year's dearth of acorns---on which bears feed---explains why dozens of the creatures have come out of forests and into towns and cities across the country in recent months. These bears have wandered into human settlements this year to look for food before going into hibernation, they said... A mature black bear usually weighs about 100 kilograms. But a mature bear captured in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, on Oct. 10 weighed only 45 kilograms.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2010]

"This year, oak trees didn't grow enough buds due to unusually low temperatures in spring," an official of the Nagano prefectural government's wildlife problem section told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "And then the scorching weather in summer made the acorns fall from the trees before they had grown to full size." Kazuhiko Maita, head of the Institute for Asian Black Bear Research and Preservation, a nonprofit organization based in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, believes a baby boom three years ago is partly to blame for the spate of bear sightings. "In autumn 2007, acorns were plentiful and bears were healthy and gave birth to many cubs," Maita said. He said there was an abundance of acorns the following autumn, too. "Bears born in these years have now become very active, partly because acorns are in short supply," Maita said. [Ibid]

However, some experts disagree that an acorn shortage has caused the bears to wander into residential areas. Manabu Miyazaki, who has filmed wild animals in the Central Japanese Alps, believes the bears do not rely on acorns for their diet. "Acorns aren't the only food bears eat," he said. "Bears are food connoisseurs who select and eat only tasty nuts." In fact, an Ishikawa prefectural government analysis of the stomach contents of 141 bears captured since September 2004 found 55 had eaten persimmons. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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