On the edge of a woodsy Nagano Prefecture road, the Picchio Wildlife Research Center team held the perimeter and yelled instructions. A young college intern yanked on a rope tied to a metallic, drum-like container, and, suddenly, a 55-kilogram Japanese black bear bolted from its door.
Another team member shot a projectile skyward. It thunderously exploded in a smoky cloud. The startled bear dashed through the thick green foliage and disappeared down a steep valley.
A fearless black-and-white Karelian Bear Dog and her handler trailed after it to confirm the escape. Fortunately, since the bear was heading away from residential areas, the dog and her handler returned quickly. This late afternoon release in the mountains above Karuizawa was a scary but positive end to the bear’s experience.
It was also a textbook example of a safe wild animal release designed to condition local bears to avoid people.
Trapping in Japan
The same bear had stepped into a snare trap set up near an isolated farm earlier that morning. Across Japan, as wild deer and boar populations grow, farmers and hunters use traps to limit their numbers and reduce damage to fields and various habitats.
These snares capture wildlife indiscriminately, sometimes even wandering pets.
Most animals caught in them can suffer for hours or even days before they are killed. The snares encircle the legs, paws or snouts of panicked creatures, cutting off blood circulation as they struggle. A small number manage to escape with a lost limb.
Luckily for this bear, the hunter who discovered it contacted a local government official who called Picchio and asked their specialists to collect the bear and release it in a safer environment. The Picchio Wildlife Research Center has a cooperative relationship with Karuizawa and other towns around Nagano.
The humane method
It’s not an easy task. A scared bear can be dangerous. An experienced specialist needs to estimate the bear’s weight, prepare a measured amount of tranquilizer into a dart and shoot the very frustrated animal. After the bear is unconscious, the team methodically weighs and measures the animal, inserts microchips and takes hair, scent, tick and track samples to send to numerous universities and research facilities.
The bear experts examine the conditions of the capture locations and the history of the bear (if known). Some are collared and electronically tracked. Then, they determine whether to release the bears near where they were caught or take them into more remote regions for “hard releases” with dogs, noise and a chase, as witnessed above. Hard releases teach bears to stay out of residential areas.
Leading bear conservation in Japan
Between the end of April and the middle of November, when bears are most active, Picchio’s professional conservationists work around the clock. Amelia Hiorns, a Briton who works here in Japan for the wildlife research center, says her team saved 160 captured bears around Karuizawa in 2020 alone.
Teaching people to coexist with bears and other wildlife is an essential mission of the Picchio Wildlife Research Center. This includes advising hotel, home and business owners on proper garbage storage, leading educational workshops at schools and community meetings, helping farmers reduce wildlife contact with electric fencing and teaching hikers how to avoid coming into contact with bears.
The Japanese government’s Ministry of the Environment (MOE) records show that at least 7,044 bears were captured throughout Japan in 2020 and more than 95% were killed. Nagano Prefecture led with the highest number of released bears.
Picchio and Karuizawa locals make Nagano the leader in bear conservation and reduce bear-human encounters and associated injuries. After the Picchio Wildlife Center opened in Karuizawa, the number of incidents involving human conflicts with bears plunged.
Tours and volunteering
Tourism is a significant source of funding for Picchio’s conservation activities. The ecotourism section of Picchio’s Karuizawa branch leads authentic green tours that bring ordinary people into contact with the local ecosystem. Visitors can go on outings through local forests with naturalists or request private tours to observe wild Asiatic black bears.
While some tours are only in Japanese, English-led tours are available. It is best to contact Picchio in advance to confirm the availability of English tour leaders. English speakers usually lead tours advertised on the English section of their official website.
Volunteering and internships with Picchio are also available. You can even work with guides during nature walks—not only another way to help but a great way to boost your resume for a job in Japan’s tourism industry. Some volunteers have become full-time staff, such as Hiorns. However, due to the pandemic, the foreign internship program is currently on hold. You can find out more on Picchio’s internship page.
Have you encountered a bear in Japan? Know of any other conservation organizations in Japan? Let us know in the comments!