REGULAR HOKKAIDO HIKERS WILL SEE BEARS
In over a decade of hiking Hokkaido’s hills I’ve only twice seen a brown bear. The first time was on the upper slopes of Rausu-dake. The terrain was open so my companion and I could see it from a few hundred yards away as it moved closer, undeterred by the blowing of whistles. When it got onto the hiking trail itself and began to move down towards us we decided it was time to abandon our climb and retreat. A few years later I had a far more distant sighting from the summit of Tomuraushi. On the other hand, I’ve come across signs of their presence in the form of paw prints, droppings and uprooted flower fields far more often, some fresh enough to raise my anxiety levels and make me thankful for the bear spray that lives on my rucksack hipbelt. But on the whole, I always figured I was more at risk from much smaller creatures found in Hokkaido’s wilds – hornets, ticks, and tiniest of all, the echinococcus parasite.
Bear encounters are increasing in frequency in Hokkaido, in all kinds of terrain including urban peripheries. Do not assume there will not be bears where you are going.
However, actual attacks have not increased significantly, remain rare and do not usually involve hikers on established trails.
Make noise when hiking, especially on forest trails and in undergrowth, and consider carrying a bell. If practical, carry bear spray and have it accessible.
In recent years, however, media coverage has given the impression of an unprecedented rise in the number of sightings and encounters with bears in both rural and urban environments. This year (2023) the early spring thaw has been one factor behind the numerous sightings reported almost daily in local news stories. Moreover, in July 2023 the Hakuun Refuge in the Daisetsusan National Park strongly advised hikers to temporarily refrain from using its adjoining camping ground due to more than twice the usual number of bears in the area, including mothers with cubs. Again, the early snowmelt was cited as a possible cause. All this and sensational reports of attacks, including fatalities (the most recent being a fisherman at Lake Shumarinaiko in northen Hokkiado in June 2023), are making me wonder if I should be reconsidering my attitude towards bears, especially as one victim appears to have been a hiker. So I decided to try and look into the issue from a more balanced perspective.
Data from official reports and statistics indicate that attacks on hikers are still extremely rare. The worst incident I know of took place on Kamuiekuuchikaushi-yama in the Hidaka mountains in 1970, and involved a female bear stalking a university hiking group from Kyushu, killing three of them in separate attacks over a couple of days (see an overview of the incident in Japanese here). The same mountain was the site of two more attacks on hikers in July 2019. Thankfully neither was fatal, though one victim was mauled badly enough to require evacuation by helicopter.
According to local government statistics, most of those unfortunate enough to be killed or injured by bears in recent decades have been hunters (41%), or people off the trails gathering wild vegetables or mushrooms (24%), or engaged in forestry work.
In the majority of instances where people have been attacked by bears in Hokkaido, the human has strayed into the bear’s territory and is competing for its food resources. Thick undergrowth also dramatically increases the chances of an unexpected encounter and an attack from a startled bear. The attacks in July 2019 followed this pattern; both involved solo hikers unexpectedly encountering a bear on the trail soon after dawn. The general consensus has been that bears will actively avoid humans and move away if aware of our presence, hence the need to make a noise when hiking through undergrowth.
The recent attacks, however, seem to have been aggressive and deliberate. So what is the current situation with regard to Hokkaido’s bears?
SHORT HISTORY LESSON ABOUT HOKKAIDO BEARS
Hokkaido is home to Japan’s only population of brown bears, ursus arctos, known as higuma in Japanese. The bears that live in the rest of Japan are the smaller Asian black bear or tsukinowaguma, named after the white patch on their chests. Hokkaido’s brown bears have always been part of the island’s image as a wild frontier and have a fearsome reputation, epitomized by the Sankebetsu Incident in 1915 in which a massive male bear terrorized a remote farming hamlet for days, killing seven people.
The Ainu people revered bears in Hokkaido as kimun kamuy, the primary animal deity of the mountains, and the iyomante or ‘bear ceremony’ was a central religious rite. Ainu men hunted bears to prove their manhood, and bearskins and gall bladders (for their supposed medicinal properties) were valued trade items.
With the mass settlement of Hokkaido bears were hunted as a danger to humans and livestock. Culling of bears took place in spring as they emerged from hibernation, as it was easy for hunters to move around and follow tracks on the late spring snow (see a close encounter on Youtube here). This official spring cull began in 1966 and continued up until 1990 when the mood shifted more towards conservation and co-existence as Hokkaido promoted its image of bountiful nature, daishizen. As a result the population rebounded and was estimated in 2012 by the Hokkaido authorities to be possibly 10,600 (plus or minus 6700 so a large margin of error), an increase by a factor of 1.8 over 23 years (Hokkaido, 2017).
ENCOUNTERS WITH HUMANS
Increased numbers of bears would not necessarily result in increased contact with humans if they remained within the vast forest tracts of Hokkaido’s wild mountain ranges. But other factors are also at work. Ongoing rural depopulation due to the ageing society has led to many peripheral farms and fields being abandoned, encouraging bears to move closer to settlements for food, raiding fields and orchards. Contact often occurs in autumn when bears feed most actively to prepare for hibernation, particularly in years where their natural food supplies such as acorns and beechnuts have been reduced by bad weather. Recently, however, bears are appearing at all times of year, especially spring. Furthermore, they are increasingly sighted in urban areas including the outskirts of Sapporo.
A related factor is a decline in the number of hunters in Hokkaido, a combination of the shrinking and ageing rural population and the strict regulations on hunting and gun ownership. Individual hunters can still hunt bears under license, though unsurprisingly numbers show a downward trend. In 2018, 39 bears were shot by sport hunters, as opposed to 154 in 2001. However, despite abandoning the official spring cull thirty years ago, the Hokkaido government grants permission for bears that appear around farms and residential areas to be removed – in effect, culled. Numbers taken under this nuisance control kill system have gone up dramatically in recent years, with 879 taken in 2018. Around one third are trapped, and the remainder shot by private hunters under assignment from the local municipal government. Farmers are reluctant to bear the costs of electric fencing and cutting back surrounding bush, so when bears damage crops (particularly corn and beet to the value of around 223 million yen in recent years), or kill livestock such as dairy cattle, they call in the local authorities. Nevertheless, despite the high numbers of nuisance control kills, experts at the Hokkaido government are satisfied that there is no danger of extinction.
Many believe that Hokkaido’s bears are losing their fear of humans. According to an old friend at Hokkaido University, the bears of the Oshima Peninsula, the location for several recent fatal attacks including in July 2021, are regarded as especially aggressive. In some cases the victim’s bodies have been partially eaten and/or cached, indicating that they were targeted as prey, opportunistically or otherwise. In total, Hokkaido government figures give a total of 17 deaths and 39 injuries from brown bear attacks from 2000 to 2020. As of 8 August 2021, there had been seven incidents that year, resulting in three deaths and eight injured, including the four hurt in the bear ‘rampage’ in Sapporo on 18 June 2021. In the previous two decades only four people died while 27 were injured, so numbers have clearly increased (but are still lower than the 1960s). One can speculate that this is due to more encounters as bear numbers rise and they lose their fear of humans.
The ‘problem’ is not confined to the countryside. Bear numbers and sightings have increased around Sapporo, often dramatically presented by local news media. As of July 2023, scores of sightings have been reported in the southern and western peripheries of the city. This marked increase has been partially attributed to the early snowmelt in spring 2023. Rivers and other green spaces provide corridors along which bears can move into urban areas. Bears are attracted to rubbish, especially food and organic waste from gardens and allotments. The city authorities set traps at hotspots and shoot bears sighted in urban areas out of justified fears for public safety. Prominent media coverage (I even read about the 2021 ‘bear rampage’ in Sapporo in a leading UK newspaper) is now generating a debate over how to manage the urban bear problem.
DO HIKERS NEED TO BE WORRIED?
So back to the original question – do we, as hikers and other users of Hokkaido’s outdoors, need to be worried? Hokkaido government figures do not show any significant trend of increased attacks in recent years, remaining steady at around three deaths and injuries annually. Expert advice still seems to be that bears will avoid humans if they are aware of our presence, so making a noise is a good start. This is especially important in thick undergrowth and around dawn and dusk when bears are most active. I always have two bells dangling from my sack, to the occasional annoyance of my companions (I will sometimes take them off in open terrain). If droppings and prints indicate bears are around I will also shout or use my whistle before going around a blind corner on the trail. Some locals hang a radio from their packs. The first piece of official advice on bear encounters is try not to encounter one at all.
TAKE CARE WHEN CAMPING
Another important point is never, ever leave any rubbish in the hills to attract bears to the trails. Pack it out. Unlike in wilderness areas of North America with large bear populations the protocols for the storage and preparation of food while wild camping are non-existent here. Most people cook where they camp and store food in their tents, and while I’ve heard of incidents where tents have been ‘investigated’ by bears I have no hard facts on this (although it was apparently a factor in the Hidaka tragedy). In national parks camping is usually at designated spots, but only at a few places in Shiretoko (or the campground in Jozankei below) are bear-proof metal storage bins provided.
Bears are also individuals with their own unpredictable characters, and some are more aggressive. A female with cubs is extremely dangerous and likely to attack if she feels they are threatened. A geologist working in the east Hokkaido mountains once told me how his car was attacked from behind when he stopped on a forest road to watch a couple of cubs playing.
So is it worth carrying bear spray, especially if you are only visiting Hokkaido? After all, it isn’t cheap and you probably need a holster as well to keep it immediately accessible as it is pointless if buried in your pack. It also only has a shelf life of a few years and will have to be replaced, though apparently it is the propellant that degrades rather than the active pepper ingredients so testing it at the start of every season to check if it still works may prolong its use. Not a recommendation, just what I do. Personally, I regard it as a good investment and would never go into the Hokkaido backcountry outside of winter without it. Note, however, that not all of the Hokkaido Wilds team is quite as insistent, and from our experience, it seems most hikers in Hokkaido don’t carry bear spray. Neither of the hikers attacked on Kamuiekuuchikaushi in 2019 was carrying it.
Also note that large-capacity bear spray canisters (larger than 118ml/4fl.oz) cannot be carried on or checked in on international flights, if you’re visiting from overseas. Bear spray can be ordered online in Japan though, on Amazon.jp (affiliate link here), and sent to your accommodation ahead of time.
BEAR ENCOUNTER STRATEGIES
If you are unlucky enough to come face to face with a bear at close quarters in Hokkaido, then the official advice is the same as anywhere else in the world. Immediately stop, stay calm, try to evaluate the situation and then back off slowly and carefully. Don’t shout, wave your arms, or throw anything at it. Never turn your back and run – this triggers the bear’s instincts and it will come after you for sure. Considering that they can run faster than a horse over short distances you won’t stand a chance. They can also climb trees much better than you. If you see cubs then the situation is far more dangerous and you should immediately retreat. Bears sometimes bluff charge but if one comes at you for real and you have bear spray give it the full canister in the nose and eyes at close range. If the bear is upon you lie face down using both hands to protect your head and the back of your neck.
In reality though, in Hokkaido this is the worst case scenario and very unlikely. I’ve only come across one report of a foreigner having to use bear spray, a photographer off the trail in Shiretoko (which has the densest population of bears on the island) who was stalked and attacked by a large male bear, possibly protecting territory. By his account, the spray saved his life.
- Bear encounters are increasing in frequency in Hokkaido, in all kinds of terrain including urban peripheries. Do not assume there will not be bears where you are going.
- However, actual attacks have not increased significantly, remain rare and do not usually involve hikers on established trails.
- Be prepared when you go hiking with some way to make a noise, especially on forest trails and in undergrowth. Carry bear spray and have it accessible.
- Don’t leave rubbish/garbage in the hills.
- If you see a bear then back off slowly. If it is at close quarters then don’t make any aggressive moves. Never run.
- If there are cubs around leave the area immediately.
Hokkaido Prefecture. (2015, December). Higuma seisokusu no suitei ni tsuite [Inferences regarding number of higuma]. https://www.heronconservation.org/media/JHBC/vol03/art01/resources/hokkaido-2015.pdf
Hokkaido Prefecture. (2017). Hokkaido higuma kanrikeikaku no gaiyo [Hokkaido bear management plan summary]. https://www.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/fs/2/4/8/8/0/6/9/_/hokkaido_bear_management_plan_summary01.pdf
Hokkaido Prefecture. (2020, December). Higuma hokakusu higai no jokyo [Number of captured bears and damage situation]. https://www.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp/fs/2/4/8/8/0/7/6/_/data10.pdf
Hokkaido Shimbun Newspaper. (n.d.). Higuma tokushu hogoseisaku he tenkan zoka no yoin [Higuma special – move towards protection and reasons for increase in numbers]. Hokkaido Shimbun Digital Version. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from https://www.hokkaido-np.co.jp/higuma/hogo/
Mano, T. and N. Ishii (2008). Bear gallbladder trade issues and a framework for bear management in Japan. Ursus 19(2): 122-29.
Sapporo City. (n.d.). Higuma taisaku [Brown bear strategy]. Sapporo City Official Website. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from https://www.city.sapporo.jp/kurashi/animal/choju/kuma/index.html
Many thanks also to Dr Mano of the Hokkaido Research Organization (北海道立総合研究機構) for his personal communication.