For most hikers, running into a bear while out in the woods is a bad thing—that’s why so many locals walk the trails with jingle bells attached to their gear. But for the participants on a special hiking tour in Nagano, finding a bear is the whole point.
Oscar Huygens, who was born and raised in France by Dutch parents, has been leading two-day bear-viewing hikes in the Japan Alps since 2007. The excursions serve as a way to educate the public while also raising funds for Shinshu Asiatic Black Bear Research Group (aka Shinshu Kuma Ken), a research-focused NPO that promotes non-lethal wildlife controls.
Historically, Asiatic black bears ranged all over Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu, but in recent years, their habitat and population have shrunk. The animals are now extinct in Kyushu, and only small pockets remain in Shikoku. Although an estimated 15,000 bears live on Honshu, they have a tense relationship with their human neighbors. “So many bears and so many people—of course they come into regular conflict,” says Huygens, who received his doctorate researching the animals. “Agricultural fields, bee yards and other property are regularly raided. How else could it be, considering that bears eat literally everything we do?”
It is the bears’ proclivity for pilfering from farms and other populated areas that accounts for their reputation as a nuisance animal. The creatures inflict hundreds of millions of yen of property damage every year, while maulings and even deaths from bear attacks are not unheard of. In 2008, 1,024 Asiatic black bears were killed because they were considered a threat to people or crops—and that number doesn’t include animals shot during the hunting season.
The irony of the situation is that killing bears hasn’t had much practical effect. “An average of 120 or so nuisance bears have been killed each year [in Nagano] for decades to reduce depredations, but the level of those depredations has remained pretty much unchanged,” Huygens says. “This is to us a clear indication that just killing nuisance bears does not work. After all, the traps are only set after the damage has already occurred.”
There are moral reasons for protecting the bears as well. “We do not believe that we, as humans, have the right to lord over other species without insuring their long-term survival,” Huygens says. “If management is necessary, then it has to be done responsibly with the help of scientific research.” Such studies could lead to the development of more effective and humane ways of dealing with the conflicts between humans and bears. Unfortunately, funding these efforts has not traditionally been a part of the government’s approach.
Huygens started the bear-viewing hikes as a way to address the problem. And so far, the response has been impressive. Participants have included everyone from tourists escaping the big city to expats curious to learn more about their adopted country to run-of-the-mill nature-lovers and even other scientists. Obviously, the trip involves a lot of hiking, but it also includes a picnic and an overnight stay in a mountain lodge. Huygens gives a presentation on bear ecology and human-bear conflict, and the hikers stop by places where encounters have occurred. Yet spotting a bear is always the highlight, and Huygens reports that every outing has had at least one sighting.
If you’d like to see a bear for yourself or maybe just enjoy the cooler weather and beautiful views in the Alps, three weekly hikes will take place this summer, starting on July 25 and continuing into August. Chances are good that you will be able to see an Asiatic black bear in the flesh. Just leave your jingle bells at home.
For more information on Shinshu Kuma Ken, see www.geocities.jp/shinshukumaken. For information on bear-viewing hikes, see www.withoscar.com/viewbears or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today