Did a Bear Really Decapitate a Japanese Angler?

Did a Bear Really Decapitate a Japanese Angler?

A human head was found on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido last week, and officials suspect a brown bear is to blame.

The incident occurred last Sunday, after a guide dropped off a recreational angler, Toshihiro Nishikawa, on the shore of Lake Shumarinai for a fishing trip. A few hours later, the captain returned, only to find a large bear wandering the shoreline with a pair of waders in its mouth.

According to a local news outlet, the boater attempted a phone call to Nishikawa but was answered with radio silence. A nearby town launched a search party shortly thereafter and discovered Nishikawa’s decapitated head near the lake. The party also killed one bear on the mission.

The attack comes on the heels of a boom in bear populations on Hokkaido. The bruins are Ussuri brown bears (Ursus arctos lasiotus), a slightly smaller cousin to the North American grizzly, but the tensions surrounding bear management on the island nearly mirror those in the US.

Historically, Hokkaido was home to a spring bear hunt, but it was abolished in 1990 when the bear population hit an all-time low of around 5,000 animals. By 2020, though, the population had rebounded to almost 12,000 bears, and sightings are becoming increasingly more common in urban areas.

In 2021, 14 people were attacked by bears on the island. In one incident, a local newspaper reported that a “rampaging bear” mauled four people in a residential area. In a video of the event, the bear can be seen climbing fences, prowling alleys, and creeping around buildings. The bear first injured an elderly couple, then turned its attention to a young man, fracturing his chest and lacerating his arms and legs. The bruin then wandered into a Japanese army camp, where it mauled a guard. After this final, fateful move, it meandered onto an airport runway, then into a nearby forest where it was mowed down by a response team.

The episode led to calls for predator management on the island. One city issued a statement advocating for the resurrection of the spring bear hunt, saying that bears “trespassing into areas of human habitation are increasing sharply, and residents and officials are exhausted.”

Humans might be partially to blame for the increase in encounters, however. “People who come to Hokkaido for the outdoor activities today are not very bear-savvy, and that is getting them into trouble.” Kevin Short, a professor of cultural anthropology at Tokyo University, said this spring. As it turns out, idiocy around bears extends worldwide, though it would be tough to take the crown away from visitors of Yellowstone National Park.

In 2021, the Hokkaido prefecture resurrected a bear hunting season, resulting in 45 bears killed in a four-month hunting season. Nearly a thousand more were killed in the same year by government officials in response to crop damage or negative human interactions.

Despite the new hunting season and management strategy, however, it’s likely that human-bear interactions on Hokkaido will continue as development encroaches further into the bears’ habitat. The recent attack on an angler is just the latest in a series of human-bear incidents on the island and is surely not the last.

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