A Day in the Life of a Bear Conservationist
While we’re all familiar with the hype around shark attacks in Australia, how many of us have ever heard about bear attacks in Japan? Conflict with these animals has been increasing over the last 10 years, with a whopping total of 156 attacks recorded in 2020. Crop damage has also cost 426.7 million yen ($5 million AUD) per year from 1999 to 2018.
It’s not something one might think about daily, but for the team at Picchio Wildlife Research Centre in Karuizawa, managing coexistence between people and bears is a priority.
On a typical day, we get between one and three reports of bear sightings or traces (footprints, poo etc.) and that same amount of bear captures and releases. Add that to having to track the locations of 40 to 50 bears, regularly check bear-damage prevention measures (such as electric fences) and monitor various projects, and – with a team of up to eight people and three bear dogs – we’re kept pretty busy!
Today was just one of those typical days. Pulling in to the carpark outside the old, wooden Japanese-style building we call the office, I can see that both work vehicles are already gone. The familiar warm chirp of cicadas and the distilled touch of the sun through the trees greet me as I take off my gumboots and enter the office.
Tamatani-san, who has worked with bears for almost 20 years, is sitting in his usual seat checking emails while one of our interns inputs bear location points from night patrol into a GIS program.
“Imura-san’s still out on chasing patrol, and Ooshima-san and Nanuk (Ooshima’s dog) went to a capture,” he explains. Imura and Ooshima usually have morning shifts from 4am.
“As soon as Imura-san comes back, we’ve got to go to a mis-capture.” No sooner have the words popped out of Tamatani-san’s mouth than we hear the rumbling of the X-Trail as Imura-san parks up in front of the office.
When accidentally “mis-captured” by stepping into a leghold trap intended for controlling deer and wild boar, bears can experience significant amounts of pain and distress. It may be up to 24 hours before the hunter checks the trap to discover the bear and contact us for help. As a non-profit organisation focusing not only on managing wildlife, but also on conserving it, we want to get to the site and help the bear as soon as possible.
There’s no time to waste. All of us promptly get outside and load our tools into the boot of the X-Trail: translocation cage, anaethesia gun, medicine box, sample collection toolbox, wooden pole and rope.
Tamatani-san rolls the X-Trail up and down the steep hills of Karuizawa, and before long we’re on a worn gravel road leading to the capture site. I open the window and drink in the clean air of Karuizawa, the earthy scent of forest and the song of birds.
I hear the snapping of twigs and see a huge black shape move frantically as the bear comes into view. With his front foot in the trap, his attempt to run away is futile and only ends up hurting him as the impact of pulling away clashes with the strong steel leghold. The faster we can get him out of there the better.
After a quick discussion with local authorities and the hunter who mis-captured the bear, Tamatani-san gets the anaethesia gun out and the rest of us prepare the capture equipment.
“Wait in the car,” Tamatani-san instructs after preparing the darts. By putting the bear into a temporary sleep, we can safely approach and cut him free. Use of anaethetics requires training, and Tamatani-san has carefully estimated the right dose to keep him asleep for just one hour.
We watch with anticipation as Tamatani-san’s tall, slim figure slips through the trees towards the bear. It’s always a nerve-wracking moment, even watching someone who has done it countless times. If the bear should somehow rip free, the only thing defending Tamatani-san from an attack is his reaction time to draw out the bear spray on his belt and fire… and racing a bear is no easy feat.
There’s a faint “pop” as he fires the dart, and bingo! He’s got the bear right in the butt. It takes a little time for the anesthetic to take effect. We watch as the bear’s movements gradually grow slower and groggier. He settles in a furry heap on the forest floor.
“Head down!” yells Tamatani-san.
The bear’s head lolls down like a kid falling asleep in a car. Tamatani-san picks up a long stick from the ground and approaches again, gently poking the bear to check for signs of movement. He gives us the okay. It’s action time.
We carry the bear to flat ground and place him on the groundsheet, tying his legs in case he wakes up early, and covering his face with a dark eye mask to shield from light. We measure body size and weight, and confirm his sex. Tamatani-san begins to attach a radio collar to his neck. Using this, we can keep track of him and bring the bear dogs to chase and warn him off should he ever make the mistake of approaching town.
My hands run through his thick black fur as we go about measuring him. This bear has coarse, short hair which leaves a sticky, gritty feeling on my fingers – but some bears have lush, silky fur so clean you would think they lived in a palace, not a forest.
After about half an hour, we’ve collected our samples, which means it’s time to carry the bear to the translocation cage before he wakes up. This bear weighed in at 60kg, which is a little below the average of 70kg for male Asiatic black bears. With our combined strength, we lift the edges of the groundsheet and carry the bear to the cage.
I can’t resist but touch his paw one last time before the cage is shut. I like the way his soft pad feels beneath my skin, and the hard texture of his thick claws. It’s a humanistic idea to think we should touch and pet animals, and to think that animals want to be touched and pet. But in this job, I have the unfair privilege of touching a bear while he is sleeping—kind of creepy if you applied the same to humans.
Later that day, we head deep into the mountain to release the bear back into the forest. The translocation cage has been placed on the forest floor and a long rope leads from the door of the cage to the inside of the car, where I keep a tight grip on it. The air is cool and the forest quiet with the approach of evening… but that’s about to change.
A cacophony of sounds you would never imagine in a forest starts up like an out-of-tune brass band. Dog barks, frightening human voices and the ceaseless ringing of bear bells are all an effort to make the bear scared of humans: a wildlife management tool known as “aversive conditioning”. My teammates give me the signal, and I haul the rope, releasing the cage door. The bear propels out of the trap like a rocket.
Bears are fast. Within a few seconds, the animal we had been intimately measuring just hours ago is gone, freed into his forest home. He’ll remember this as the most frightening day of his life, and it’s not likely he’s going to want to go near a human ever again. The image of his wild eyes and muscly black body disappearing into the bushes imprints itself in my mind. After all, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Photos by Picchio Wildlife Research Centre and Eli Sooker