ATAMI, SHIZUOKA PREF. - It’s a familiar scene on the evening news: A wild boar ventures out of the woods looking for food and wreaks havoc on a countryside town, spurring local authorities to arm themselves with nets to catch the rogue animal.
Boar populations in the country have grown rapidly over the past several decades, partly due to a decline in the number of hunters, increasing the frequency of such encounters between man and beast.
According to the Environment Ministry, the estimated number of wild boars roughly tripled from the early 1990s to some 900,000 in the year to March 2017, and 76 people were injured in boar attacks in the year through March 2018, up from 64 a year earlier.
Amid a government push to stop overpopulation of the animal, which can also hurt the local ecosystem, hunters have been capturing boars in record numbers. But what happens to all of that meat?
“Skinning and taking apart a specimen is hard work, especially for aging hunters. So what often happens is that they won’t even take it home. They’ll just catch it, kill it and bury it on the spot,” said Etsuko Nishikiori, a hunter in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, a seaside hot-spring resort about a two-hour drive from Tokyo.
To put a stop to the wasteful practice, Nishikiori and a group of her friends set up a facility in October 2017 to process game meat for consumption. They pooled together ¥1.3 million to buy a motorized winch to lift carcasses, making it much easier to remove the blood and internal organs, and refrigerators and freezers to preserve the meat.
The meat is prepared into cuts or turned into sausages or jerky to be sold at local shops or online. People who bring in a carcass can collect ¥2,000, or if they choose, half of the meat, but “most are just happy to have it taken off their hands,” said Nishikiori.
The facility, which is named Yama no Megumi (Bounty of the Mountain), accepted about 80 boars and a few deer in its first year in operation.
The biggest specimen was a 120-kilogram behemoth — Nishikiori joked she thought it came out of the anime film “Princess Mononoke,” which features a giant 500-year-old boar that is worshipped as a god.
Most specimens were caught in the surrounding forest, but sometimes hunters asked to bring in carcasses from relatively far away, keen to avoid a hefty disposal fee.
“We’re only able to pay ¥2,000, but it’s better than nothing,” she said.
Nishikiori, a 48-year-old former nurse from Tokyo who is now a housewife, started hunting four years ago after Silkie chickens she had been raising were ravaged by a wild animal.
The incident prompted her to get a trapping license in order to “understand my foe,” she said, but it wasn’t until a neighbor offered to cook her some boar meat that she caught the hunting bug.
“It was so delicious. I thought, if they can be caught around here I should do it myself.” She got her rifle license about a year ago.
To get a hunting license, applicants need to undergo training and pass exams. Licensed hunters are required to register with local authorities.
Nishikiori and fellow housewife Hiroko Yamaguchi, who helps run the meat-processing facility, are unusual sights in the local hunters’ club, which is comprised mostly of elderly men with an average age of about 70.
The situation is a common one in Japan, where the overall population is rapidly graying amid a shrinking birthrate.
According to Environment Ministry data, there were 190,100 licensed hunters in the country in fiscal 2015, the overwhelming majority of whom were 60 or older. That is in contrast to 1975, when there were 517,800 hunters, the bulk of whom were in their 30s and 40s.
But there are an increasing number of women entering the world of hunting. The data shows the number of female hunters more than quadrupled to 4,200 in the 15 years leading up to fiscal 2015.
Nishikiori said women may be drawn to hunting because of the growing popularity of game meat, which has spread in the country in recent years under the French word gibier and is considered a leaner, healthier alternative to meat from domesticated animals.
“The (hunting) community also isn’t as old-fashioned as it used to be. It’s more welcoming,” she said.
Ultimately, Nishikiori aims to encourage younger people to take up hunting.
She wants to ensure the local ecosystem is not threatened by the overpopulation of wild animals, which leads to overfeeding on vegetation. Not only does that rob other species of food, it also makes mountainsides prone to landslides because some wild animals eat tree bark, causing trees to die and leading to fewer roots to anchor the soil.
“In five or 10 years, all of the older hunters will retire and then who’s going to do it? We have to keep the culture alive. The facility is a tool that helps us do that,” Nishikiori said.