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Bears versus robot wolves in ageing Japan

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    22 hours ago

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With gleaming red eyes, bone-chilling howls and bared fangs, animals scatter for cover at the sight of this beast.

But this is no ordinary wolf – or even a real one.

Originally designed to keep wild animals away from farms, authorities now use this mechanical wolf to stop bears from entering urban areas and attacking people.

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The Monster Wolf was first used in Takikawa city in the autumn of 2020, according to Motohiro Miyasaka, president of its manufacturer, Wolf Kamuy. Since then, more and more local governments have ordered it.

The number of bear attacks in Japan has been rising at an alarming rate, authorities say.

Experts say the main reason is that people, particularly young people, are leaving rural farming villages. Many of them have migrated to big cities, emptying villages or towns that have already been shrinking due to an ageing population.

“More and more, rural farmlands in the foothills that once acted as buffer zones between the bears and humans are disappearing,” said Shinsuke Koike, a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology whose research centres on bears, biodiversity, and forest ecosystems.

As a result, young bears have over the decades moved into the untended woodlands, living closer to cities, getting used to bright lights and loud noises, and becoming less afraid of humans.

Image source, Getty Images

They are wandering into residential areas because their habitat has expanded from the mountains into the flatlands closer to human populations.

Ferocious brown bears are found in the northernmost region of Hokkaido. Over the past six decades, there have been more than 150 bear attacks in Hokkaido.

At least four people were killed and 10 were injured in 2021 – one of the deadliest years on record.

Asian black bears populate the rest of Japan. They are identified by the cream-coloured crescent mark on their chests, and are less aggressive, but not any less dangerous.

Japan’s bear population is also increasing at a time when Japan’s human population is ageing and shrinking. Government data estimates there are around 12,000 brown bears in the Hokkaido region, while some experts put the Asian black bear population at around 10,000.

This photo taken on July 27, 2023 shows senior citizens enjoying cool popsicles after playing the croquet-inspired game of

Image source, Getty Images

Bear sightings and incidents happen usually around April when they awake from hibernation in search of food, and then again in September and October when they eat to store fat for the winter months. Fatal attacks are, however, rare.

“But statistically if the number of attacks and injuries go up, chances of people dying will probably increase as well,” said Mr Koike.

The situation has been worsened by reduced yields of acorns – the biggest food source for bears – in part because of climate change.

Acorn harvests typically adhere to a boom and bust cycle. An autumn of exceptional harvest can mean a dismal one the following year, and a bad year can be made worse when intense storms – more frequent now because of climate change – destroy crops.

Global warming can also affect oak trees in other ways. A 2015 study showed that warmer weather may lead to smaller crops of acorns by disrupting pollination.

Oak trees usually bloom at the same time, which allows for more successful cross-pollination.

But warmer spring seasons – a result of global warming – lengthen the blooming period and cause oak trees to flower in a less synchronised manner. That can reduce acorn harvests in autumn by about 20%, according to Tim Sparks, a professor at Coventry University and one of the authors of the study.

Asian black bears are found on Japan's main island, while more ferocious brown bears populate its northern island Hokkaido

More poor harvests could send even more bears into people’s backyards in search of food.

“What we need to think about doing now is how to get the bears back into the mountains,” said Mr Koike.

But there is no clear solution.

The main problem, according to Tsutomu Mano, a research biologist at the Hokkaido Research Organisation who spoke to local media, is that very few officials have wildlife management knowledge, and government ministries don’t coordinate well to deal with the issue.

Beyond teaching people how to react during bear encounters and relying on a decreasing number of ageing hunters, authorities are at a loss at how to best deal with the situation, Mr Koike said.

Before the diminishing rural communities and the dampened acorn harvests, many attacks in the past happened when people veered deep into the wilderness of bear territory. But that’s now flipped.

“They’re trying their best, but this is a new problem for them,” said Mr Koike.

Video by Isabelle Rodd

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