The number of people injured or killed in bear attacks in Japan this year has surpassed 200 for the first time, with experts warning of more encounters in winter, when the animals are thought to hibernate.
The Environment Ministry said 212 people were attacked in the eight months starting in April, including 30 in November alone, according to public broadcaster NHK.
Six people died, including an angler in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido whose partial remains were found near a 1.5-meter-tall bear. The bear was shot and DNA testing later confirmed the remains belonged to the missing man.
The total number of injuries since March is well above the previous record of 158 reported in the 12 months beginning in April 2020, according to media reports.
As Japanese authorities struggle to deal with the growing number of encounters between humans and bears that have left their natural habitat in search of food, experts have urged people to remain vigilant even during the coldest months.
While bears typically hibernate from late November until spring, the scarcity of food this year means some hungry animals will continue to feed, as media reports sightings in late November – which used to be rare.
Although some bears are expected to hibernate earlier than usual to save energy, others who haven’t eaten enough “might continue to wander instead of hibernating,” said Teruki Oka, a forest expert. , according to the Mainichi Shimbun.
Bears that have developed a penchant for meat, including the infamous OSO18 – the code name given to a brown bear that attacked more than 60 cows in October over a four-year period starting in 2019 – are particularly threatening , according to Professor Hiromi Taguchi, a bear. expert at Tohoku University of Art and Design.
“They are hungry and restless in winter because of the lack of prey,” he told the Mainichi newspaper.
In Akita Prefecture, where about a third of the nationwide encounters took place, children continue to walk to school carrying bells designed to scare away animals, while stores say they are out of bear repellent.
The area has been the site of two high-profile incidents this year: one in which a man lost part of an ear after finding a bear in his garage in the center of Kita-Akita town, and one another nearby during which several people were mutilated. a bus stop.
In the past, bear encounters often involved people foraging in the mountains. But poor harvests of beech and other foods have forced the animals to venture out of their forest habitats, inevitably bringing them into more frequent contact with people in built-up areas.
“The boundaries between humans and bears have blurred as forest areas expand and arable land is abandoned due to depopulation and other developments,” said Kazuhiko Hoshizaki, a professor at the prefectural university. of Akita, to the Nikkei economic newspaper.
The Environment Ministry described the rise in attacks as “extraordinary” and urged people to properly dispose of household food waste, which could attract animals, and to ensure they keep doors closed. NHK recently offered viewers advice on what to do if they spot a bear.
Japan’s bear population is growing, with a recent estimate putting the number of black bears at 44,000, up from an estimated 15,000 in 2012. This figure does not include Hokkaido, which is believed to be home to around 12,000 Ussuri brown bears. , whose population has more than doubled. since 1990.
Nearly three-quarters of this year’s attacks took place in northeastern Japan, prompting the Environment Ministry to send experts to help local authorities capture and study the bears, the agency said. Kyodo news agency.
Conservationists have called for more to be done to improve the bears’ natural habitat, while reports of bear shootings have drawn public criticism.