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December 31, 2007


Leaving Healthy Ecosystems for Future Generations

moriyamasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Mariko Moriyama, Chairperson, Japan Bear & Forest Association

Japan Bear & Forest Association is a conservation group that tackles preservation and restoration of mountain ecosystems, recognizing bears as a symbol of ecosystem conservation. Based on my own experience, I would like to talk about the current situation of mountains in terms of natural conservation as well as the environment where Asiatic black bears and other animals live.

Asiatic black bears are endangered!

First of all, I would like to explain what impelled a science teacher at a municipal junior high school to step into this kind of activities. In 1992, I was a teacher at a junior high school in Amagasaki City, Hyogo Prefecture. One day, a girl student submitted an essay together with a newspaper article. I saw a picture on it of smiling hunters showing a bear shot dead. I was sure that it must be a heart-wrenching story and I didn't feel like reading it. As a teacher, however, I had to make a reply to her as long as I accepted the essay. I reluctantly read it.

According to the article, a variety of animals and plants had coexisted in a rich natural environment, mostly composed of broad-leaved trees until World War II, but the majority of natural mountain forests were converted to artificial ones by clear-cutting natural trees and planting coniferous trees such as Japanese cedars and cypresses only, as a result of the policy of the Japanese government to enhance afforestation. This led to destruction of the ecosystems of forests and loss of the habitats of many wild animals.

It is often reported that bears come down to human settlements and threaten human living. The truth is that they are deprived of their food supply, suffer from hunger and come out from their territory to seek feed. People, however, misunderstand that the number of bears is excessively increasing and spillover bears come out from the forests to eat farm crops. As a result, they are exterminated as harmful animals.

The first victims of the disruption of an ecosystem are large animals. First, Asiatic black bears are put on the road to extinction. According to the above article, they have been extinct in Kyushu, where the afforestation was first conducted, and only dozens of bears are surviving in Shikoku. It is estimated that there are 60 bears in Hyogo Prefecture. You may think that they are not very small numbers. But, large animals start inbreeding when the population drops below 300, which is an omen of extinction, and cannot avoid extinction when it fells below 100. In the article, the Asiatic black bears in Hyogo Prefecture are reported to be on the edge of extinction.

Student's opinions were accepted at last

I didn't know such facts though I was a science teacher. I was shocked. I distributed the essay and the newspaper article to other students. Some of them proposed helping pitiable bears. I was obsessed by an idea that there must be some conservation groups working with this kind of problems earnestly and we could leave the matter to such groups. And I answered so to the students. I investigated only to find that there was no such group in Japan and no report on this matter in the media. While doing this, I was often asked by the students if I could find any group protecting bears. I became irritated little by little.

I have been always telling students that we should try to express our opinion when we believe it is right, even if we are alone. At last, I made up my mind to start a campaign by myself. I called for participation of my colleagues and formed a group named Association to Protect Wild Asiatic Black Bears. Students also wanted to take part in the activities. I dared to deny it because I should not be doubted as a teacher that I agitated students. They made small conservation groups one after another by themselves and named them "Association to Have Wild Animals Return to Mountains", "Association to Restore Asiatic Black Bears" and so on.

We launched a signature-gathering campaign and prepared a statement entitled "Urgent request for prohibition against hunting of endangered Asiatic black bears in Hyogo Prefecture." In fact, however, it was not us but students who collected a number of signatures. They were very eager. They stood in front of supermarkets and railway stations or visited homes every day. I clearly remember what one of the students said in those days. "We are expected to live for some 70 years but it seems impossible to live for such a long time when we see the speed of the destruction of nature."

In those days, approximately 30 bears were killed every year in Hyogo Prefecture by hunting and for the purpose of extirpation of hazardous animals. As long as only 60 bears were surviving, it was evident even for school children that it was only a matter of time before they became extinct. Students visited the forestry department of the prefecture government with the signatures they collected and made an appeal. The answer was they would not change the policy of expanding artificial forests. Our argument was not accepted at all. Even under the circumstances, the students didn't lose heart and became more aggressive. They started to study the problem so hard, which was unbelievable even to me.

Their efforts paid off. We made a direct appeal to the then prefectural governor as a last resort. He knew biology and fully understood and accepted the students' opinion. Finally, this turned the tide. For the National Tree-Planting Festival held in Hyogo soon after this, Japanese cedar had been once chosen for planting, but it was replaced by broad-leaved trees for the first time in its history. A letter written by the students was presented to and read by the Emperor and the Empress, which was reported by a newspaper. After this, the Environment Agency (the former Japan's Ministry of the Environment) announced the prohibition against hunting Asiatic black bears in Hyogo Prefecture.

A forest consists of animals and plants

After these incidents, I visited forests throughout the country and interviewed local people by myself. I realized that richness of Japan was dependent on the efforts of ancestors who took care of and conserved natural forests.

When I entered a primeval forest where bears live, which was very rare even at that time, I was impressed by the atmosphere of a "real forest." The whole air of the forest was moist and water welled out from the ground here and there. Rainwater seeps into the ground of a forest, takes in a variety of mineral, then wells out with rich nourishment as its ingredients and flows into a river. The water encourages the growth of agricultural crops. It has supported the manufacturing industry which needs a large quantity of water. Forests provide animals with nests and food. It is also essential for human living. And, the forest is supported by animals and plants. Only when the both are in a close symbiotic relationship, a rich forest can exist. Without animals, forests will have to die.

We made an appeal to scholars for protecting the few remaining natural forests and restoring artificial forests to its original condition, i.e. rich natural forest. But, no one was supportive. In those days, I found a book entitled "Conservation Movement in the U.S." written by Shigeyuki Okajima. After reading the book, I realized that we had been asking researchers and governments to support our activities, and that it should be citizens that protect our nature. It was in the spring of 1997 that I founded the Japan Bear & Forest Association. My ex-students, who became university students, received our offer and joined the activity.

Fist of all, we visited a town where people were most eager to kill bears in Hyogo. No animals appeared in the daytime but they come down to the town to seek for agricultural crops at night. Farmers complained that they had planted Japanese cedars following the national government's directions but forestry was on the verge of collapse due to the low-price imported timber, and agriculture was threatened due to damage caused by birds and beasts. We suggested them to plant trees that yielded nuts and acorns in mountains to prevent animals from coming down to human settlements and giving damage to crops. People liked the proposal but the aging population in a depopulated area cannot afford the expense and the labor power needed. Then, the Association invented a slogan "Restore forests as animals' home and ensure security to local people" and sought corporation from people living in urban areas. We planted nursery trees of broad-leaved trees yielding nuts and acorns little by little.

What human beings can do is to lend a hand

If we thin out 60 percent of an uncontrolled artificial forest in mountains and plant nursery trees of broad-leaved trees, some new trees grow, surprisingly which were not planted, and small animals like insects and rabbits return to the forest after two years. The forest becomes remarkably vigorous. On the other hand, in Niigata Prefecture and other areas along the Sea of Japan, oak trees are dying at a high pace, and their leaves turn red even in mid summer. It is said to be damage due to global warming but the issue has seldom been reported by mass media. Even now, primeval forests are being cut down by the Forestry Agency.

In fear of disappearance of primeval forests from Japan, we founded a large-scale conservation trust to protect water source areas in mountains. Since its establishment in 2006, we have purchased 1,244 hectares of primeval forests with gigantic trees in Toyama, Shizuoka as well as Hyogo in total and conserved those intact forests.

Recently, more and more people agree to protect woodlands near human settlements. Woodlands are indispensable to city dwellers. On the other hand, domestic forestry must be respected. In other words, when considering the problem, we need to make a distinction between mountains and woodlands: mountains should be conserved intact, but we need to utilize woodlands for our lives while protecting them and animals living there. The area used for forestry and tree planting should be limited to 30 percent of the total mountain areas at a maximum, aiming for sustainable forestry.

Japan Bear & Forest Association has been protecting forests by trial and error. The national government is trying to control the number of wild birds and beasts but I don't believe human beings are able to manage complex ecosystems. What we can do is to lend a helping hand to the restoration of forests and watch the process where numerous animals and plants enrich the forests. I hope that as many people as possible will join us to protect rich forests that even support our living.


Mariko Moriyama is chairperson of Japan Bear & Forest Association. Graduated from Osaka Kyoiku University with a major in physics, Moriyama taught at Amagasaki Municipal Muko Higashi Junior High School. She started a campaign to protect endangered Asiatic black bears with her students in 1992. Through these activities, she noticed that we were losing rich forests inherited from our ancestors and we were facing the collapse of Japanese culture. With a mission of conserving rich forests where bears live for the next generation and for all species, her scope of activities reaches every corner of the country.