Nation/World

Bear storms Japanese military base and airport, injuring 4 people

TOKYO - A wild bear went on a rampage in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo on Friday, storming a Japanese military base, forcing its way into an airport and injuring four people.

Video footage showed the bear galloping across a busy road and pushing its way into a base run by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

The bear was spotted at around 3:30 a.m., with additional sightings throughout the morning.

Video from public broadcaster NHK shows the bear scaling a fence at Sapporo Okadama airport, a small airport serving flights around Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Eight flights at the airport were canceled, according to NHK, while 10 schools were closed in the city.

Two helicopters were called out to track the bear, and local hunters joined in the hunt. The bear was eventually shot at 11 a.m.

“It’s hard to properly understand what happened, but knowing that the bear is male, and given that it is the breeding season right now, it’s highly conceivable that the male was chasing after a female bear, and in the process wandered into a residential area,” said Shinsuke Koike, a professor and bear expert at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.

Dangerous encounters between bears and humans have risen sharply in Japan in recent years, with the animals increasingly coming down from their mountain habitats in search of food. Last year, experts blamed a shortage of acorns in the mountains for a surge in sightings, but there is a deeper reason: Japan’s shrinking rural population.

The trend has led to the abandonment of farmlands in the foothills that once formed buffer zones between the bears’ mountain homes and the populous flatlands. As a result, the bears’ habitat has expanded into these flatter lands and closer to human populations.

“All over Japan, areas where bears are living are expanding more and more, to the point of bears living right behind people’s backyards,” said Koike.

Hokkaido is home to thousands of brown bears (ursus arctos), where they were respected as gods of the mountains by the Indigenous Ainu people but were then killed as pests by 19th-century settlers. Brown bears are found across Asia, North America and Europe, with some individual populations isolated and threatened, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Japan’s main island of Honshu is home to thousands of Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears because of a white marking on their chests, roughly in the shape of a crescent moon.

Last year, two people were killed and 158 hurt in encounters with bears, according to Environment Ministry data. At least 6,861 bears were killed.

“Once a bear is in a residential area, in order to avoid any accidents, extermination is really the only way,” Koike said. “Tranquilizing guns will usually take up to 10-30 minutes for effectiveness, so in the process, the bear could act up in panic leading to further incidents.”

Dogs can sometimes be used to force bears away but that is also difficult in residential areas as it may just force them into another neighborhood, he said.

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The Washington Post’s Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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