TOKYO, Oct 25: Scarce acorns, silent guns and rural depopulation are bringing Japan's bears out of the woods.
The number of Japanese black bears caught feasting in fields of sweet corn, apples and other crops has jumped this year, with the animals increasingly undisturbed by hunters, whose ranks are dwindling as the population ages.
''There are plenty of bears out there who've never even heard a gunshot, so if they do see people, they think it's OK not to run away,'' said Hidetake Hayashi of the Shinshu Black Bear Research Group, which monitors bears in Nagano prefecture.
Black bears can grow to about 1.5 metres in height and weigh 100 kg or more.
Docile when left alone, they can be dangerous if caught unawares, and recent newscasts have reported attacks on humans.
The number of hunters in Japan has fallen from almost half a million in the late 1970s to about 150,000 in 2005, according to Dainihon Ryoyukai, the Japan hunters' association, so people might appear less intimidating to their ursine neighbours.
In Gifu prefecture, rangers have shot 121 bears since the start of April, six times as many as in the previous 12 months, the Yomiuri daily reported.
Gifu University's Professor Toshio Tsubota, who heads the Japan Bear Network, a nationwide body involved in bear research, said a skimpy acorn crop this year was the most likely cause of the rise in number of sightings.
The shortage of their favourite food has forced the bears to seek other sustenance before hibernating at the end of autumn.
A longer-term reason was rural depopulation, Tsubota added. As fewer villagers venture into the woods to chop down trees for firewood, the border zone between forest and village has eroded.
''The villages have thinned out,'' the Shinshu group's Hayashi said. ''Bears may now think it's all right for them to be there.'' But ultimately, he said, there was no clear single reason for the sharp rise in sightings.
''You'll have to go and ask the bears,'' he said.