With bright red eyes, a chilling howl, and bared fangs, animals rush for cover at the sight of this wolf.
But this predatory wolf is not an ordinary wolf, not even a real wolf.
The robotic wolf was originally designed to keep wild animals away from farms, and now Japanese authorities are using this mechanical wolf to prevent bears from entering urban areas and attacking people.
It was first used in Takekawa City in the fall of 2020, said Motohiro Miyasaka, president of Wolf Kamui’s manufacturer. Since then, local governments have requested increasing numbers of the robotic beast, dubbed the “Beast Wolf.”
Authorities say the number of bear attacks in Japan is rising at an alarming rate.
Experts say the main reason is that Japanese people, especially young people, are leaving villages and rural agricultural areas. Many of them migrated to major cities, which led to empty villages or towns that are already suffering from a significant decline in population due to the aging problem that Japan faces.
“More and more farmland in the foothills that served as buffer zones between bears and humans is disappearing,” said Shinsuke Koike, a professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, whose research focuses on bears, biodiversity and forest ecosystems.
As a result, over the decades the young bears moved into neglected forests, lived near cities, became accustomed to bright lights and loud noises, and became less afraid of humans.
Bears began to roam residential areas because their habitat expanded from the mountains to flat lands closer to human settlements.
Fierce brown bears can be seen as far north as Hokkaido. Over the past six decades, there have been more than 150 bear attacks in Hokkaido.
At least four people were killed and 10 others injured in 2021, one of Japan’s deadliest years on record.
Asian black bears are found in the rest of Japan. They can be identified by the light-coloured, crescent-shaped spot on their chest, and are less aggressive, but no less dangerous.
The number of bears in Japan is increasing at a time when the country is witnessing a decline in population and aging. Government data estimates that there are about 12,000 brown bears in the Hokkaido region, while some experts estimate the number of Asian black bears at about 10,000.
Bears are usually seen and related incidents occur around April when they awaken from their winter hibernation in search of food, and then again in September and October when they eat to store fat for the winter months. But fatal attacks rarely occur.
“But statistically, if the number of attacks and infections increases, the chances of people dying will likely increase as well,” Koike said.
The situation has been exacerbated by declining productivity of acorns, the bears’ largest food source, partly due to climate change.
The nut crop is often associated with a boom-and-bust cycle, meaning that a bumper harvest one year can be followed by a lean season the next. A bad year can become worse when severe storms, now more frequent due to climate change, destroy crops.
Global warming can also affect walnut trees in other ways. A 2015 study showed that warmer weather may lead to lower nut yields due to disruption of pollination.
Oak trees, which bear acorns, usually flower at the same time, which allows for more successful cross-pollination.
But warmer spring seasons, as a result of global warming, lengthen the flowering period and cause oak trees to flower less synchronously. This could reduce autumn acorn yields by about 20%, said Tim Sparks, a professor at Coventry University and one of the study’s authors.
Further poor harvests could lead to more bears coming out into people’s yards in search of food.
“What we need to think about now is how to get the bears back into the mountains,” Koike said.
But there is no clear solution.
The main problem, according to Tsutomu Mano, a research biologist at the Hokkaido Research Organization, is that very few officials have knowledge of wildlife management, and that ministries do not coordinate well to deal with the issue.
Speaking to local media, Koike said that in addition to teaching people how to behave when confronted with bears and relying on a decreasing number of elderly hunters, the authorities are confused about how best to deal with this situation.
Before the decline of rural communities and the decline of acorn harvests, many attacks occurred in the past when people invaded wild areas inhabited by bears, but this situation has now completely changed.
“They are doing their best, but this is a new problem for them,” Koike said.