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Towns in Japan Are Using Drones to Track and Prevent Bear Attacks on Humans

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Towns in Japan Are Using Drones to Track and Prevent Bear Attacks on Humans

December 1, 2020

Humans and wild animals have always had to coexist with each other. As societies developed and cities grew, animals were mostly pushed into uninhabited areas, leaving people to themselves for the most part. But there are still situations in which animal populations negatively encroach into communities. Late this last summer, a large flock of Canadian geese made a resting ground on the field of an elementary school. Though the geese are perfectly harmless, they leave behind a mess of droppings. In large quantities, bird droppings can release ammonia into the environment making it hard to breathe, besides the fact that it is not ideal to have kids trying to walk around piles of waste as they enter a school. To address the situation, the school mounted Halloween-like realistic wolves around the parking lot to scare off the geese.

In other areas, particularly the northeastern United States, an abundance of deer have become a problem. The deer eat people’s landscaping, spread Lyme disease, and cause traffic accidents. To handle the deer population, some counties pay hunters to track and kill the deer. Some hunting groups have even begun using drones to speed up the tracking of deer that are coming too close to communities. Luckily, the geese and the deer mostly pose an inconvenience for people. However, in some rural Japanese communities, people have been living in fear of attacks from wild bears. Officials have had to resort to their own version of scare tactics and drones to deal with the bears.

Over the last few years, Asian black bears in Japan have been leaving their mountain forest homes and coming close to residential areas. A full grown male can stand 6ft tall and weigh up to 450 lbs. Asian black bears are herbivores and naturally shy away from humans. If they do encounter people, they will fiercely defend themselves. Asian black bears are categorized as a species vulnerable to extinction because of deforestation, part of the reason why the bears are now coming into human territories.

Minoru Miyashita, director of the Tokiwa Zoo in Ube City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, is considered to be an expert on animal behavior. Mr. Miyashita said that one of the reasons the bears are leaving the forests and attacking people is because they are being forced to do so. Forests have been drastically cut back for timber eliminating the bear’s food supplies and habitat. The growth of cities and a decline in traditional farming practices have also been attributed to increased bear attacks. “In old times, the so-called satoyama areas, tracks of land combining flat areas next to hills, were maintained by farmers, and these served as a kind of buffer zone,” he said. “Presently such crops as bamboo shoots and so on, which bears like to eat, are just left to grow on their own. Almost all the places where people were attacked by bears were previously these kinds of satoyama.”

As temperatures drop and natural food sources dwindle, bears are entering into communities to look for food and shelter. After a reported 157 bear attacks in 2019, the Japanese government has turned to technology to tackle the issue. Earlier this year, officials contracted Ohta Seiki, a company that specializes in automotive fabrications. They were tasked with building an animatronic “Monster Wolf” to scare off bears. The wolf is mounted on a stand and has motion sensors that activate it when a large enough animal approaches. On top of its stand, the wolf stands 2.5ft tall and 4ft wide. It has glowing red eyes, shakes, moves its head, and emits a variety of sounds when triggered. The sounds include loud growls or gunfire to scare away the bears.

These monster wolves have been located around the edges of several forests that are near fields. For communities without access to these monsters, residents have been told to call the police if they suspect a bear to be in the area. On November 13, 2020, a resident of the Yatanomachi district of the Ishikawa Prefecture city of Komatsu spotted a bear climbing a persimmon tree and promptly called it in. In a sparsely populated area along a forested track, the bear sighting was not unusual. A team of police officers, firefighters, and hunters came out to the field with a drone in tow. Taisuke Terada, a 38 year old fire lieutenant who regularly operates a drone for fire and rescue missions, was ready to help the team locate the bear. He sent the drone up over the field and activated its infrared camera to see where the bear was hiding.

While drones are known for being equipped with high definition cameras, for this mission it was critical to use one with infrared capabilities as well. Asian black bears are adept at hiding in trees and tall grasses. A standard camera, even an HD one, would not be able to spot the bear. After about 20 minutes, Terada finally located the bear with the drone. He hovered over it for a few minutes before the drone’s battery expired. In the meantime, the rest of the search party cornered the bear and set off firecrackers to scare it back into the woods. A few days later, the drone was sent out to a nearby field to scare off another bear, reassuring locals who have been avoiding their fields out of fear of attacks.

This year alone, there has been reports of over 700 bear sightings in the Ishikawa Prefecture. While the animatronic wolves work well to scare off the bears, they are only so many of them available. As more and more municipalities use drones for everyday emergency services, they are hoping to reduce the bear attacks. Officials will begin using the drones to patrol areas during dusk and dawn, times when the bears are more likely to come out. The drones will be specifically used to monitor schools and shopping areas where people gather. Using the drones, officials can safely deter the bears from attacking people while also gathering data on how many bears are in the area. This data can then be used to implement programs that protect both bears and humans.

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