Japanese condemn bears to death: A defenceless wild animal is being hunted to the brink of extinction for its valuable gall, Terry McCarthy writes in Tokyo

'YOU see this bear, here? He was killed because someone claimed he was dangerous,' said Tatsuo Kawasaki, leaning over a photograph. 'You know what kind of danger? He had been scratching the bark off trees in the forest.' The picture shows five hunters, proudly clutching rifles, with the crumpled corpse of a Japanese black bear in the snow at their feet. The bear's jaw is twisted open and a red stain is spreading in the snow underneath.

The bear never had a chance. The hunters, whom Mr Kawasaki knows, are professionals, living in Gifu prefecture in central Japan. They shot the bear in late winter, during the hibernation period - 'usually they know where the bears are hibernating, send dogs in and shoot the bear as it emerges while it is still drowsy,' said Mr Kawasaki, who is a lecturer in environmental science at Gifu University.

The Japanese black bear, or tsukinowaguma, is an endangered species and recognised as such internationally. There are only an estimated 10,000 left in Japan - down from 20,000 only a decade ago. In the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), the Japanese black bear is cited in Appendix One, reserved for those species most threatened with extinction. All trade in Appendix One species is forbidden.

But Cites only covers international trade. Within Japan there is no law protecting the black bear. They can be shot by hunters during the hunting season from 15 November to 15 February. And if the prefectural governor can be convinced that a bear represents a threat, or even a potential threat to humans, then the bear can be shot at any time of year.

'The formal procedure is for the governor to ask hunters to kill a 'dangerous' bear. But in fact the hunters usually approach the governor first.' The reason, explained Mr Kawasaki, is the bear's gall: 'One gram of bear's gall has the same value as one gram of gold.' The gall from an adult bear could command pounds 3,000 on the open market.

'It is a very strange system,' said Hisako Kiyono, from the Japanese office of the conservationist group Traffic. 'The international trading of black bear products is prohibited, but this bear is not protected by Japanese domestic law. And the government does not do any research into the numbers of black bears left.'

Bear's gall has long been treasured by the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans as an all-purpose medicine against lung and liver diseases and stomach ailments. Dried and powdered it is a prized ingredient in the traditional medicine shops, alongside rhino horn, tiger penis and various types of snake's blood. But like the rhino and the tiger, the supply of bears can no longer keep up with demand.

'Gifu prefecture, which was 84 per cent forest, used to be the number one prefecture for black bears in Japan,' said Mr Kawasaki, who is also president of the Gifu Society for Mammal Research and the author of a recent book on the plight of the Japanese black bear. 'But with deforestation, the construction of roads and golf courses and the continued professional hunting, the bears' numbers are dropping quickly.'

He estimates there are just 600 black bears left in the mountains and forests of Gifu. 'That is close to danger level: if (population density) goes much lower, the bears will not be able to find mates over such a large distance and they will die out.'

Already black bears are extinct on the southern island of Kyushu, and on the smaller island of Shikoku there are only five or six left. The only way for them to be protected, according to Mr Kawasaki, is for the animal to be declared a national monument, like the otter, the Iriomote wild cat and some species of deer.

The black bear, Mr Kawasaki stresses, is not a danger to humans: weighing an average of 80kg, it is more likely to run away than try to attack someone in the forest.

Unlike its cousin the brown bear, which is found only on the northern island of Hokkaido and is related to the North American grizzly, the black bear will not kill mammals to eat. Its diet is largely vegetarian - roots, stems and nuts - supplemented with some insects and freshwater crabs and, if it can find it, honey. 'It is true - they really love honey,' said Mr Kawasaki.

(Photograph omitted)

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