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Bear-viewing hikes in Japan Alps

23 Comments
By Jessica Ocheltree

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 oscar@withoscar.com.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

23 Comments
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You don't need to go through all this trouble to see a bear...there is one on the loose just behind my house and people have been warned not to go out. I am against killing bears but this one scares the hell out of me. Hopefully they will catch him and release him somewhere far away from civilization.

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i give it a week before the first mauling death

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"the trip... includes a picnic"

With a picnic basket?" Yogi, are you listening, ha ha ha!

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Sounds like a wonderful nature loving thing to do but if asiatic black bears are anything like the bears in the US I sincerely hope the guide is packing a 12g loaded with alternating slugs and 00 buck. Too often people forget that these beautiful creatures can also be lethal creatures and their behavior can be unpredictable at times. Hope no one gets injured or killed.

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Hey it will be a case of dinner for the bears delivering itself.

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What is it with you guys!? An NPO works hard at trying to find alternatives to the systematic killing of nuisance bears in Japan (the article says over a 1000 are killed each year without much reduction in nuisance activities to show for it ) and all you can find to say are mindless disparaging comments? Shame on you, it is easy to criticize while doing nothing in front of your computers, quite another to try to make a difference through action! I checked on the indicated websites and these hikes really seem wonderful and they help this NPO raise much needed funds for the great conservation work they seem to be doing! They also seem like a great way to discover the Japanese Alps. These mountains are incredible, I have been there several times, but I have never seen a bear! The hikes also seem very safe, with the bears apparently spotted at high elevation above the timberline where they can be seen very safely from a distance. And I know there are in excess of six hundreds thousand bears in North America, yet accidents remain very rare. Bears are simply not the blood thirsty beasts some of you portray them as.

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if asiatic black bears are anything like the bears in the US I sincerely hope the guide is packing a 12g loaded with alternating slugs and 00 buck.

The American approach to enjoying the great outdoors. What a bunch of tough guys...

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Bears are simply not the blood thirsty beasts some of you portray them as.

They don't have to be "thirsty for blood" to kill or shred you like cheddar cheese. You just have to: A. meet up will a mama bear and her cubs. B. be in the same berry patch or threaten some other hidden food source. C. bump into one when they are (very hungry) going in or out of hibernation.

I think bears are awesome. I have the greatest respect for them and their right to survive, but I with OssanAmerica on this. When I pick berries in Griz country, I take a twelve gauge and a .44mag or I don't go.

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Sounds like a wonderful nature loving thing to do but if asiatic black bears are anything like the bears in the US I sincerely hope the guide is packing a 12g loaded with alternating slugs and 00 buck. Too often people forget that these beautiful creatures can also be lethal creatures and their behavior can be unpredictable at times. Hope no one gets injured or killed.

From what I understand of bears in Japan, they tend to avoid contact with humans. Attacks from bears in Japan are sufficiently rare to be news when they occur.

At a matter of fact, in 2007 I participated in one of the bear-watching trips that the article featured. We spent half the first day climbing up a well-used trail to a popular mountain lodge in the Kita Alps, and just like any other group of hikers, we had a picnic on the way up - hope that dispels the image of bear lovers sitting somewhere remote with a picnic hamper waiting for Yogi to turn up! The mountain lodge was on a ridge. After a couple of hours relaxing there, we set out mid-afternoon when fewer hikers are generally around, and followed a path along a less well used ridge up to a point where the guide thought we had a good chance of seeing a bear. Those of you who have walked in the Kita Alps will know that ridge walks are above the treeline and have excellent views all the way; there was absolutely no possibility of accidentally running into a bear, the situation that I've heard is the most likely to prompt aggressive behaviour. After spending a while training binoculars on the valley a few hundred metres below we were able to spot a bear wandering up the valley, which for me was a truly awesome sight. At no point during the trip did I feel that we were taking any greater risk than a group of hikers doing a two day walk in the mountains. No need for guns!

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To everyone, especially ossan and John Elder

Black bears are smaller and by nature less agressive than brown bears. Both are likely to avoid humans if they know they are coming, hence the recommendation of bells. However if you surprise them suddenly on close range, say a sudden turn in the trail and they couldn't smell/hear you, then they may attack. If they have young nearby, more likely they will attack, if you find yourself between them and their young, highly likely. In N America there are both black and brown bears. (grizzlies are one type of brown bear). In Japan the only brown bears are in Hokkaido. The black ones in Honshu etc., are even smaller than black ones in N America. I have had many experiences of hiking along and hearing bang crashing and looked over a ridge to see a bear running away from me.

However this article is highly irresponsible-- "just take off your bell" if you want to see a bear is stupid advice, especially to a largely ignorant public. They are unlikely to attack, but they do sometimes and they will win, you will be mauled. Be careful and make noises and keep them away.

These tours leading a large group into the mts don't need bells, they will be easily heard/smelled by the bears. Unless the researcher has some special tricks, which he may, I would imagine the only way you could see them under those circumstances is above tree-line from a great distance.

Give Japanese mts a shot. They are beautiful.

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The American approach to enjoying the great outdoors. What a bunch of >tough guys...

Obviously you haven't spent any time in bear country. http://www.belch.com/img/bearmauling.JPG http://news.aol.ca/article/BC-Man-Survives-Grizzly-Mauling/233158/ http://www.flickr.com/photos/uncultured/1457356643/

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imacat at 12:44 AM JST - 20th July if asiatic black bears are anything like the bears in the US I sincerely >hope the guide is packing a 12g loaded with alternating slugs and 00 >buck.

T>he American approach to enjoying the great outdoors. What a bunch of >tough guys...

And this hasn't been removed because?

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Japanese giant hornets scare me more than bears to be honest.At least the bear may not be interested in you and may run in the other direction.

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Hike and picnic to boot! Very sweet! Sounds like a fantastic idea, I hope the tours do well.

That said, I also hope the guide takes some very strong and fast-acting tranquiliser darts with him. Surely they don't have to use guns if the tourists are at risk?

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in the days wbefore animal cruelty issues became fashionable, staged fights were organized between bears and lions, the bears always won.Stay away from bears.

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?And this hasn't been removed because? because it's a valid comment. Have look at these good ol' American boys decimating beautiful bears for >fun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSSzOTexSG8 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZnsL7-UdGc Personally I much prefer Oscar Huygens approach, but for a tough guy >like OssanAmerica who knows all about "slugs" and "buck", well no doubt >he would feel right at home hanging out with these guys in the videos. >The chats around the campfire after a hard day of slaughtering the bears >would be stimulating no doubt...

Insulting others is against posting rules. And that you don't know the significance of slugs/buck exposes how little you really know about contact with bears.

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Lowly

I don't think anyone questions that bears, of whatever species are magnificent and beautiful animals. Personally, I think they'd rather be left alone rather than have a crowd looking for them. And you're quite right in that 99% of the time the bear will know a human is around and will avoid any contact. But in that rare instance of a confrontation the bear will win 100% of the time. Comments made about being properly armed are meant as examples of how human safety is assured in bear country in the US and the hope that these "bear watchers" don't end up in some awful accident.

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"Comments made about being properly armed are meant as examples of how human safety is assured in bear country in the US and the hope that these "bear watchers" don't end up in some awful accident." An accident like, a hunter rustling in the undergrowth being mistaken by another of the shooting party for a bear and being shot?Human safety is not assured by the carrying of guns..

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An accident like, a hunter rustling in the undergrowth being mistaken by >another of the shooting party for a bear and being shot?Human safety is >not assured by the carrying of guns..

No, responsible hunters don't shoot at "rustling sounds" in the undergrowth. Being certain of the target is a fundamental rule taught in all hunter safety courses which are mandatory to purchase a hunting license. The chances of surviving an unexpected violent encounter with a bear are increased by the carrying of the right type of gun by a person trained in it's proper use.

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Sounds similar to giving bananas a tour of the monkey cage.

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ossan..you statement was "human safety is assured by being properly armed in bear country"..this is not the case as there is a much greater risk of being shot by a hunter than being killed by a bear(check the stats) in a utopia where all hunters are responsible,as you claim to be, then your statement may be accurate however we are talking about the real world where drunk fools go shooting for fun.Human safety is not assured by the carrying of guns..it is compromised.Without guns people would think twice about putting themselves in situations where they had previously only gone "assured" by their weapon.

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Bento - Drunk fools may go shoot guns. They may even go deer hunting. But drunk fools don't go bear hunting. And if they do they pretty much deserve what's going to happen. Guides in Alaska and elsewhere are trained,experienced and equipped to deal with bears. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that being with such a guide in bear country is safer than being without. Your mistrust of most people as regards their proper qualification, training and responsibility concerning firearms shouldn't cause you to deny this reality.

"Without guns people would think twice about putting themselves in situations where they had previously only gone "assured" by their weapon."

By this statement I presume you are stating that humans should not be approaching bears in the first place. In which case I tend to agree.

firearms

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I don't deny any reality..properly trained or not these guides can never be sure they are not in the same locality(bullet range) as drunks out shooting,whether for fun of food..whether for deer or bear (so these two species occupy separate ranges?.. that's probably news to rocket scientists)..it is self evident that you have a better chance of surviving an encounter with a bear if you have the means to shoot it dead..however that same means can also shoot you or another human dead..whether by accidental discharge or incompetence, once discharged the bullet doesn't care..guns do not assure human safety whether out of bear country or in it(which was your original statement with which i disagreed),some humans think they do..but graveyards contain many people who arrived there unexpectedly after finding out the hard way that what they thought assured their safety actually caused their demise. Apparently it does take a rocket scientist to understand that guns have killed far more people (in bear country)than bears ever will.My mistrust of people with guns is just a survival instinct.

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