• Kyodo

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The Niigata Prefectural Government issued a special warning Monday about wild bear encounters, a day after a woman died from injuries sustained in an attack when she was working on a farm earlier in the month.

Takako Saito, a 73-year-old resident of Sekikawa village, some 250 kilometers north of Tokyo, died Sunday — the first death resulting from a bear attack in the prefecture since October 2001. She was found by a neighbor lying unconscious on her property and bleeding heavily from her head and face on Oct. 1.

Local officials and police will increase patrols while urging residents to be extra vigilant by handing out flyers with recommendations about bear safety.

As of Sunday, Saito was among nine people attacked since April in Niigata Prefecture, according to prefectural government officials.

The prefecture is home to a population of Asian black bears and has received more than 700 reports — a record number — from locals who spotted the animals or traces of their presence between April and September, officials added.

An abnormal scarcity of wild tree nuts, particularly beech nuts, that make up a large part of the bears' diet in the mountains is believed to be why they are venturing closer to areas inhabited by humans in search of food ahead of their winter hibernation, experts say.

Also behind the recent trend of increased encounters with bears is the rising depopulation of villages in or near bear habitats due to the graying of those communities, said Hideo Miguchi, a Niigata University professor and authority on bears.

Niigata Prefecture also notes that more and more people are encroaching into bear habitats when hiking or mushroom picking, increasing the number of interactions and sightings in the spring to fall seasons.

The latest warning by the Niigata Prefectural Government was an upgrade of its first bear alert, issued on Oct. 1, under a warning system launched the same day.

On Sunday, two women, both in their 70s, suffered injuries from bear attacks at around 6 a.m. in the city of Minamiuonuma and were taken to hospital. One had her arm scratched when she was working in a field and the other was pushed over while walking nearby.

"We will continue to issue strong warnings about bears so as to prevent injuries," said Makoto Kanbe, who heads the prefecture's center to address damage caused by wildlife.

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