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The lowdown on Hokkaido bears

by Amy Chavez

Let’s talk about bears, big Hokkaido bears called higuma in Japanese. Bears can be dangerous in Hokkaido, where hikers may encounter them in the mountains. There have been 86 attacks and 33 deaths from bears since 1962 when the government started keeping records.

The higuma are part of the ursus arctos horribilis, known as grizzly bears in North America. They are over 2 meters tall, weigh about 300 kg and can run at a speed of 50 kph.

As you can imagine, these large creatures have to eat a lot. Although you’d think such large creatures would eat things like trees, and buildings, the higuma eat mostly plants.

They also have an appetite for humans on the side, however, and will occasionally attack and garnish. You wouldn’t think they’d bother with the casual hiker but rather hit the Sapporo Dome, which holds 41,580 people.

During a popular sports event they could have a 41,580-course meal. But I suppose it’s easier when the food comes directly to them, as hikers tend to do.

At national parks all over Hokkaido there are signs warning you of bears. One sign I saw said, in English, “This area is infested with bears,” and featured a cute smiling bear on the sign.

The message seems to be: Never trust a smiling bear.

There is no shortage of safety tips telling what to do if you do see a bear when hiking in the mountains.

Most of them are of the “if a bear charges you, remain calm” variety, which are not so helpful in a real attack, so I have made some alternative suggestions below each tip.

First, you’ll need three things to be safe from bears: a bell, a white piece of cloth and a Ferrari. These correspond to the three stages of a bear attack: the bear sighting, the attack and the escape.

Now on to the tips. Remember, these tips are from experts who know.

The sighting

Ring a bell, shout or clap your hands to alert bears to your presence.

It may seem strange to attract the bear’s attention in this way, especially when it seems more polite to just go up and introduce yourself, but the idea here is let him know you are coming from a distance so as not to startle or surprise him.

Some people attach small bells to their backpacks but I would think that a large group of people singing well-known campfire songs such as “The Bear went Over the Mountain” would be good.

But you should be loud enough to let him know you have arrived, and the attack can begin at any time. Heck, anyone in your party own a Ferrari? One with a V-12 engine and a deafening exhaust system would be perfect.

If you are camping, stow food in trees well away from where you are sleeping. Arrange tents in a line so as to leave a clear entrance and exit to the trash and cooking areas to allow the bear an easy retreat.

If you haven’t been able to attract a bear yet, invite him to dinner. Set up a bear-feeding station as mentioned above and install a sidewalk with footlights to guide the bear at night. It seems to me that it would be a whole lot safer to not even take any food into the forest.

It is said that you can live longer on water than food, and when you consider the bear factor too, I don’t see why we are trying to increase our chances of being eaten by taking our own appetizers. But remember, these are experts saying all this.

When you see a bear, talk to it. Let the bear know you are human.

Let him know you are human without inserting the words “morsel” or “garnish.” Once you’ve gotten his attention, to gain the upper hand, always use his full name. Say something like,”Ursus arctos horribilis,” how dare you attack me!” This should really get his attention.

The attack

Stay calm and do not run. C’mon, it’s just a bear attack, what are you worried about?!

If the bear makes contact, surrender! Now you know what that white piece of cloth is for. Take it out, wave it, and hope that the bear acknowledges your surrender.

Don’t try to outrun the bear. Bears can run up to 50 kph, which is much faster than you.

The escape

Now you know what the Ferrari is for.