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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Coexisting with Bears

Sep. 24, 2015

People in Hokkaido are celebrating 10 years since the Shiretoko peninsula became a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site. Crowds come for the unspoiled nature, and wildlife.

But some officials worry visitors may get a bit too close to the park's natural residents. Brown bears wander the peninsula. When fully grown, they're taller and faster than humans -- and they're not always friendly.

Summer is peak tourist season in Shiretoko. Many tourists come here with hopes of glimpsing the park's biggest predators.

But summer is also when the bears are rearing their cubs, and are at their most protective. On top of that, the bears have to work hard to find food. There's no fruit on the trees, and the salmon and trout are still out at sea.

One thing the bears have learned is that humans often bring food. So they go in search of their two-legged visitors, and this can lead to some alarming scenes.

Experts at the Shiretoko Nature Foundation say sightings of brown bears are soaring. They say they received more than 800 reports in the first 4 months of this fiscal year. That's more than for the whole of the previous 12 months.

"The figure is significantly higher than normal," says Gen Terayama of the Foundation. "We are concerned the bears may be increasingly active."

Officials have been closing some of the most popular tourist spots, as they try to keep the visitors and bears apart.

They're also trying to keep traffic moving. Tourists have been stopping -- even on main roads -- hoping for a glimpse of a brown bear. Officials fear such congestion can be another source of danger.

The Foundation has a double mission: to protect Shiretoko's nature, and keep the tourists safe.

Because of this, rangers have taken up guns. They fire blanks, to try to scare the animals away. But not all bears are so easily deterred. Some will approach people's homes, or tourists' cars. And they don't fear humans.

"If you want to find a bear ... look for a group of people," says Foundation member Shinsuke Kasai. "Tourists come here hoping to see bears, so when you see them congregating, there's a good chance they've found one."

Foundation officials are trying to teach visitors about the bears. They explain that feeding them only makes them more interested in people.

Another foundation member says the only thing they can hope to control is the visitors. "We can't talk to a bear about how to behave, but we can talk to people," says Keita Akiba. "So we think we should try to teach people about bears, and get them to change their behavior. The best way to manage the bears is to control the people and find ways to keep the two apart."


Tsutomu Mano from the Hokkaido Research Organization joins Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: How large is the population of brown bears in the Shiretoko Peninsula?

Mano: According to a report released in 2009, at least 250 bears are believed to inhabit Shiretoko. Their population density per unit area is one of the highest in the world for this type of bear. The bears live very close to areas inhabited by people. Nearly 20,000 residents live in two municipalities in and around the peninsula. It's rare, even elsewhere in the world, for people to live so close to a natural reserve with a large brown bear population.

Shibuya: And if tourists feed the bears or leave trash behind, it's bad for local residents?

Mano: That's right. The brown bears get habituated to having people around. This is inevitable, and it's not bad in itself. In fact, bears that are used to people can move around areas where fishermen are working without getting into trouble with them. But human food and garbage are high in calories and easy to digest for these bears. Apart from that, the bears can easily get them. All they have to do is go to a place where the food is. Once they learn how to get it, either from visitors or from garbage, they start to come closer to humans and their houses, hoping to get more. This may lead to serious accidents involving not only visitors but local residents as well.

Shibuya: So you're trying to raise awareness among tourists. There are more visitors coming from abroad. Have you been able to get the message across to them as well?

Mano: As you saw in the video, warnings on our signboards are written in both Japanese and English. But visitors come from around the world these days. So information and education on bear safety for visitors from a variety of countries are urgent issues. I think we should set up multilingual signboards, like the ones you see in Tokyo. We also believe the foundation need to provide the lecture videos in multiple languages.

Shibuya: How can we live in harmony with the bears?

Mano: People have had a fearful image of bears. But that's changing. They've become an attraction and a symbol of the wilderness of Shiretoko. Therefore, we should consider this for our future World Natural Heritage management. Brown bears are an integral part of Shiretoko's ecosystem, and they're also an important resource for tourism. Visitors are just fascinated by them. I hope we can better convey the value of the Shiretoko World Natural Heritage site to foreign visitors, through the bears and the people who live in the area.