A 71-year-old former bear hunter is credited with saving an unspoiled expanse of beech trees in Shirakami-Sanchi, a mountainous area straddling Akita and Aomori prefectures, from a planned forest road. Now he has a new concern: the adverse effects on the local ecosystem ever since the area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mitsuharu Kudo began hunting black bears after graduating from junior high school. The decision came naturally as his father was a bear hunter.

To hunt a bear, five or six people work as a team, playing separate roles, such as analyzing the animal’s movements and issuing instructions to other members, driving the bear into position before shooting it at close range — usually within 5 meters.

On the eve of his participation in a hunting team for the first time, Kudo’s father told him, “You need the mind of a devil to kill an animal.” Kudo wondered if he could ever think that way, but decided he must when, aged 20, he used a hunting rifle for the first time.

“I concluded that I had to kill animals in order to survive,” Kudo recalled. But he was determined to dispatch each animal instantly with a single shot from close quarters to prevent it from suffering.

Kudo has hunted some 70 bears, together with rabbits and deer, and he always held a ceremony to mourn his prey after each kill.

He also adhered to his principle of hunting only the minimum number of animals necessary. “I was afraid I would be punished by the god protecting the mountain if I killed more animals than necessary and wasted their lives,” he said.

In 1982, the project to construct a forest road through Shirakami-Sanchi got under way, arousing concern that it would damage the ecosystem in the mountains of northern Honshu — an ecosystem said to date back some 8,000 years.

“When I was an apprentice hunter, the veterans told me that we had to save the nature of Shirakami-Sanchi and hand it down to future generations,” said Kudo, a native of the village of Nishimeya in Aomori Prefecture, located at the foot of Shirakami-Sanchi.

He launched a campaign to stop the project. Only one other villager joined as the road was promoted by local politicians and locals stood to benefit from it. The two found themselves ostracized in the village.

Kudo thus began an “ecotour” program for people from different parts of the country, introducing them to the natural environment of Shirakami-Sanchi and asking whether they thought building a road was a good idea.

The program aroused stronger public interest in the Shirakami-Sanchi ecosystem than expected, resulting in more than 10,000 signatures being collected opposing the project. It was eventually abandoned as the Forestry Agency decided to preserve the forest in 1990.

In 1993, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated Shirakami-Sanchi as Japan’s first world natural heritage site, along with Yakushima, one of the Osumi Islands belonging to Kagoshima Prefecture.

Shirakami-Sanchi was selected for its unspoiled expanse of beech trees — one of the largest such forests in the world — and for its rich ecosystem.

Kudo has since made inspection tours of the area on behalf of the central and local governments and worked as a tour guide for tourists visiting there.

But the ecosystem in the designated natural heritage site is starting to show signs of damage because a ban on hunting there has resulted in an increase in animals such as martens that eat rabbits, according to Kudo.

“The balance of nature can be maintained when humans and animals coexist,” he said.

As an ecotour guide, Kudo considers it his task to help young people understand the need for passing down the beautiful nature of Shirakami-Sanchi to future generations. The former bear hunter’s mission continues.

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