When bears come to town

An unprecedented number of bear attacks have rocked the country, but man is likely to blame

Erica Alini
When bears come to town
Shari Town Hall/AP

Whether it’s urban foxes sneaking into babies’ cots in London, or sharks having a taste of surfers in Australia, there’s no question that human-animal encounters can be dangerous. Often, though, mankind itself is to blame. That appears to be the case in Japan, where authorities have been grappling with a surge of hungry bears coming to town for a snack. The Asiatic black bears, which are feared to be facing extinction, have caused panic across the country by doing things such as wandering in front of an elementary school in the northern town of Shari this year, or running into a souvenir shop after attacking a group of tourists in the central town of Takayama last year. In fact, a record number of bear attacks this summer left four people dead and 80 injured, and led to some 550 bears being killed near human-populated areas in northern and central Japan.

The problem dates back to 2004, when an uprecedented 68 such attacks prompted the country’s Environment Ministry to set up an emergency survey to find out the causes for so many wayward bears. One major source of trouble may be climate change: summer heat waves have reduced the supply of the furry mammals’ natural food sources such as acorns and nuts. But Japan’s decades-long neglect of its forests may also be to blame. After the war, an autarky-obsessed Japan started planting coniferous trees to ensure self-sufficency in lumber (only to later drop the policy in favour of relying on cheaper wood imports from overseas). But subsequent lack of oversight led to those trees growing into forests that were too dark and thick for nut-bearing trees to exist. At the same time, the country’s quick turn away from agriculture in the 1950s resulted in abandoned farms and rural communities, which, when occupied, used to provide a buffer between bears and urban areas. Disoriented and hungry bears started foraging too far, crossing paths with terrified urbanites, and paying dearly for it.