Oct 2, 2023
The massive, wolf-shaped tower of fur and fangs looming over the road to Takikawa City in northern Japan may seem scary. But its blood-red eyes, snarling face, and piped-in howls are meant to keep away a rising threat: bears.
"Rural farmlands in the foothills that once acted as buffer zones between the bears and humans are disappearing," Shinsuke Koike told the BBC. He's a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.
A number of factors has led to a surge in bear attacks in Japan’s Hokkaido region. In 2021, four people were killed and 10 injured in run-ins with the island nation’s brown and black bears. The uptick has forced cities to take measures like Takikawa City’s robotic wolf. It's meant to scare bears back into the wild.
Koike believes Japan’s aging populace shares some of the blame. The number of villages and farms in the countryside has declined as more young people move to cities. Often, their older parents follow. In their place, bears have thrived. As the number of bears has grown, their food supply has gone down. Climate change has resulted in oak trees producing fewer acorns. Acorns are a major food source for hungry bears. Without enough food in the forest, bears wander closer to cities. There, deadly run-ins can occur.
While robo-wolves may be a short-term solution, Koike told the BBC he would like to see more done. "What we need to think about doing now is how to get the bears back into the mountains," he said. He suggests better training for local wildlife officials. He also thinks broader education about how a person should act if they see a bear would help.
Reflect: Pretend you have been hired to create a product that helps prevent dangerous interactions between humans and wildlife. What would it look like, and how would it work?
Photo from Reuters.
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