Category Archives: Nature

In praise of…The Brown Bear

If you go down in the woods today, you’d better not go alone,
It’s lovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home,
For every bear that ever there was,
Will gather there for certain because,
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic
Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Henry Hall & His Orchestra

Excessive harvest continues to be the most immediate threat to the persistence of Hokkaido brown bears.
Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, Tsutomu Mano and Joseph Moll, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia

“What does the sign say?” asked the illiterate Dr. T.  
One of the pleasures of botanizing with Dr. T is that when two roads diverge, we take the one less traveled, which on this occasion led us, in the rental Prius with me at the helm, at the proper and stately botanizing speed of fifteen kays, up a winding, hill-chiseled, single-track logging road, Route 607, on the Oshima Peninsula at the very southernmost tip of Hokkaido. We hadn’t encountered another human being for at least an hour, no small feat in this crowded land.
“It says, ‘Beware of the bears.’”
“Are there any bears here?”
“Nah,” I replied with the faith of the ignorant, the city-slicker guide masquerading as Mowgli, “We’re too far south. They’re all up in the far northeast.”
Ten minutes later, we rounded a corner. There was a bear in the middle of the road.
“Holy fucking crap! It’s a bear!”
Legion are the species of flora and fauna that are devilishly tough to identify in the field on first glance. Bears are not among them. This was Ursus arctos (so good they named it twice), the Brown Bear, aka the grizzly bear, or in its northeast Asian subspecies incarnation, Ursus arctos lasiotus, the Ussuri brown bear—in Japanese, the higuma.
Memories of what happened next differ. I’m told that I moved with uncharacteristic physical swiftness to close the driver’s side window of the Prius. My recollection is that I coolly asked, with the curiosity of the natural scientist, whether it was an adult.
“Of course it is!” exclaimed Dr. T, scrambling around on the back seat for his Nikon. He had about thirty fumbling seconds before the bear, rightly more wary of us than we were of it (how much I would love to know if “it” were a boar or a sow), lumbered up the hillside and into the beeches and maples, which is why even the best photo looks as if it were taken with a Box Brownie by a leprous dipsomaniac with delirium tremens. No Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for Dr. T, then.

I’d naïvely asked whether it was an adult because, not well versed in matters ursine and reared on wildlife documentaries about the salmon-fat Kodiak bears of Alaska and Hokkaido brown bears of the Shiretoko Peninsula, our bear seemed, well, a tad diminutive. Later, Dr. T, quizzed on how big it had been, replied with typical drunken eloquence, “As big as a really fucking big Alsatian!” On reviewing his photo, that seems about right.

Not that—in this case—size mattered: for both of us, it was our first encounter with a bear in the wild, a moment made so much the more magical for being wholly unexpected and unscripted. Globe-gallivanting Dr. T, one of whose friends is an authority on the Spectacled Bear of the Andes, holds out hope of one day tracking down the inspiration for Paddington Bear in deepest, darkest Peru, but for sedentary city-bound me, this was almost certainly the only bear with whom I will ever cross paths. 

The following evening, we watch an item on the evening news: an Asian Black Bear, categorized on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction, has been driven down into residential districts in the central Japan city of Nagano by a poor season for seeds, nuts, and berries, the dearth of which has been so exasperating Dr. T.
“These narratives,” I warn Dr. T, “invariably end in the death of the bear.”
Twenty seconds later, the bear is dead, shot by a local hunter.
“Isn’t there anyone to speak up on behalf of the bear?”
“Well,” I reply, gesturing at the screen, “This guy’s from WWF Japan, but he’s just explaining how there are likely to be more bear incursions this autumn, so your answer is no.”


The Brown Bear is one of only two of the eight species of bear listed by the IUCN as Least Concern—five are listed as Vulnerable and one, the Giant Panda, is listed as Endangered—and while it is safe for now in its strongholds of Russia, Alaska, and Canada, it is long gone from many parts (Mexico, California, the Atlas Mountains, South Korea, the UK, and Germany) of its immense historical range and under intense pressure in many other parts (India, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and most of Europe) of the rest. The Japanese population may be the fifth largest in the world, after that of Romania. But how large is it? I thought, from previous dabbles in ursid research, that I knew the answer—around 2,000-3,000 individuals—but the truth turns out to be more elusive, as this October 6, 2012, article from the online Nikkei newspaper, which I translate in its disturbing entirety, suggests:

How many brown bears on Hokkaido? First survey in 12 years
Survey to be used in trouble countermeasures
How many brown bears are there on Hokkaido? The first population survey in 12 years is to be conducted on Hokkaido, where bear intrusions into forest villages and residential districts are frequent. The previous census, in 2000, estimated the population at 1,771-3,628, but current opinion is divided, with some claiming there are over 10,000 and others that they have been over-harvested. Hokkaido wants to get a precise grasp of the population and use the data in measures to prevent trouble. Between April and September this year, there were 963 sightings and 416 bears were harvested. Reports were made of more than 100 sightings in Sapporo City alone. In the year to March 2012, 825 bears were harvested and researchers are saying that bears are being over-culled in comparison with the estimated population count. How many bears are there really out there? We need a more precise grasp of the number. In September, the prefectural government mailed a questionnaire to some 5,800 hunters within the prefecture asking them to estimate the number of bears in their municipality and whether the number was rising or falling. The results of the survey are to be put together before next March. Discussions have also begun about bringing in the “hair-trap method”, whereby bear fur is collected and DNA analyzed to distinguish individuals, so as to enhance the precision of the survey. The Hokkaido Research Organization’s Environmental Science Research Center is pursuing research into how to cut costs. The generally accepted theory is that up to 10% of a bear population can be harvested annually without impacting the ecosystem. A survey on the Oshima Peninsula in the south of the prefecture using the hair-trap method put the bear population at 800, plus or minus 400. Plans are being drawn up to protect the bears there by putting an upper limit on the harvest at 120 individuals (40 sows).

So noone has a damned clue what is going on and the bear census is to be done shoddily and on the cheap. Assuming the Nikkei numbers are accurate, even at the upper population limit of the 2000 census the recent Hokkaido-wide cull rate (“harvest” is a noxious euphemism widely used around the world) is over 20% a year; at the lower limit it is close to 50%. On the Oshima Peninsula, the cull averaged about 80 bears a year between 1990 and 2008, the vast majority in controlled kills of “nuisance bears” (some, using the Ainu language, talk of kimun kamuy, “good bears” and uen kamuy, “bad bears”) rather than in recreational hunting, and a cull cap at 120 would have only saved bear lives one year in the last two decades. If the peninsula’s bear population is only 400, the low end of the survey estimate, the cull-rate cap would be 30% a year and the average cull rate 20% a year.

This goes some of the way to explaining why the odds were strongly stacked that our bear would seem, well, a tad diminutive: brown bears reach reproductive age at around five to seven years and live, unmolested, for 20-30 years, but at a cull rate of even 10% a year, Hokkaido brown bears have only a roughly even chance of making it to adulthood, even setting aside normal mortality rates. To put this in human terms, a cull rate of 10% equates to a homicide rate of 10,000 per 100,000 people; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the 2011 homicide rate in Honduras, reckoned to be the most murderous country in the world, at 91.6 per 100,000, more than a hundred times lower.

What of the other side of the ledger of death? Between 1980 and 2009, a total of 14 people (five of them hunters) were killed by bears on Hokkaido—fewer than 0.5 fatalities a year—while in the last dozen years, no more than three people a year have been injured annually. On the raw, unadjusted-for-stupidity data (all 18 of the bear fatalities between 1970 and 2000 were male and a minority of victims are solitary nocturnal salmon poachers), you’re approximately 400 times more likely to be killed in a Hokkaido traffic accident (190 fatalities in 2011) and 7,000 times more likely to be injured in one (19,705 injuries in 2011). You’re also approximately 3,000 times more likely to die by your own sweet hand than at the paws of a bear (1,533 Hokkaido suicides in 2010). With people outnumbering bears by about a thousand to one (and I would guess “Beware of the bear” signs outnumbering flesh-and-blood bears by fifty to one), it’s a massively, massively lop-sided conflict between these two apex omnivores. There’s damage to crops and forests to be taken into account, too, but this could be overcome with a well designed compensation scheme—the damage amounts to a paltry million dollars or so a year.

The human population of the eight towns that make up the remote southern end of the Oshima peninsula, where the bears are densest, is collapsing—from 89,000 in 1970 to 47,000 in 2010 and a projected 27,000 in 2035—and across Hokkaido the hunter population is likewise collapsing, down by more than half since the 1978 peak to 9,400 of late, with 44% of them over 60, but it would be premature to declare victory for the bear on these grounds, as the Oshima bear population has been falling these past four decades, too. As long as bears are seen as a pestilent and lethal enemy to be subdued—a view kept alive by folk memories of episodes from the early settler era such as the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident—as long as there are people around, and as long as some have guns, the conflict will run and run.


We pressed on along Route 607, which turned into a deeply, rockily rutted track.
“You know, there are very few roads down which you can’t take a two-wheel drive car,” airily opined Dr. T, whose steed of choice is a Land Rover Defender, who believes all lesser mounts must be—or should be, in a righteous world—just as rugged, and who has previous global convictions as long as a brachiating gibbon’s arm for grievous rental car abuse—if rent-a-car agencies had an Interpol most wanted list, he would be on it.
Moments later, to a banshee wail of stone against steel, the Prius grounded out.
“Fuck this for a lark, I’m turning round.”
We headed up around the coast to the other end of Route 607, but could only get a few kilometers into the interior before being thwarted by a forbidding barrier declaring that the road ahead had been washed away.

Even Dr. T in his Land Rover couldn’t have maneuvered past this—although I bet he would have given it the old college try. Unlike other barrier-blocked roads we had run up against in our travels, this one offered no schedule for reopening. Beside the barrier stood a wooden house, its frail, skeletal rib-cage of a roof staved in as if by a giant, vengeful fist. It’s the same all over rural Hokkaido: the homesteads on the most marginal land, furthest from civilization, are as a rule the first to go. Perhaps, I later mused, just perhaps this is where bear salvation lies, in the withdrawal from the extremities of Homo sapiens sapiens (so good—and so immodest—we named ourselves twice) and the closure of logging roads rendered redundant by the demise of the timber trade.

Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. Thanks to the selfish genetic success of the human cockroach, the 21st century is destined by many a reckoning to see the extirpation of half of all of the creatures with whom we share the planet, in what may come to be known as the Anthropocene extinction, the greatest and swiftest extinction event since at least the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Barring nuclear holocaust, utterly catastrophic climate change, or asteroid impact, the Brown Bear might make it through to the dawn of the 22nd century, along with the American Black Bear and, courtesy of the crudely nationalist and blinkered efforts of the Chinese state, the Giant Panda, already conservation dependent and ecologically extinct. It has to be touch and go for the other five bears. In the follies of my Greenpeace youth, I used to care passionately about these things, until I came to appreciate the enormity of humanity’s indifference.
As Brion Gysin said, man is a bad animal.

Select sources (in no particular order):

The World Wildlife Fund Japan hates bears (J only)

Hokkaido suicide rates (J)

Hokkaido road traffic death and accident rates (J)

Japan Bear Network report on bear-caused deaths and injuries in Japan (J, pdf)

Bear-caused deaths and injuries on Hokkaido, 1970-2000 (J)

Bear-caused injuries in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears culled in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears, forests, and bear culls in Japan, 1923-2006 (J, pdf)

Aging hunters on Hokkaido (J)

Interpreting the recent increase of brown bear conflicts in Hokkaido, Japan, from the 20th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, 2011 (E, pdf)

Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia (E, pdf)

Population Characteristics of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula, Hokkaido (E, ppt)

Management and Research of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula (E, ppt)

IUCN Red List data for the Brown Bear (E)

Bear Conservation and Biodiversity, Japan Bear Network (E, pdf)

The status of brown bears in Japan, in Understanding Asian bears to secure their future (E, pdf)

Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia (E, pdf)