Deer devouring your arborvitae? Chowing down on your corn? You have plenty of company. In Japan.
A population of 105,000 deer on the main Japanese island of Honshu — where Tokyo lies — is doing so much damage to forestry and agriculture in Nagano Prefecture that some people are calling for a truly drastic measure. Reintroduce wolves from abroad. That’s right, wolves, which vanished from Japan at the beginning of the 20th Century due to overhunting of the wolves themselves and of the deer on which they fed.
Wolf reintroduction is a second option for controlling deer. The first choice is
legal sport hunting. Problem is, almost no one hunts in Japan anymore. The land where Samurai prided themselves on their ability to down game with bow and arrow and Ainu tribesmen engaged bears with spears has only a quarter as many hunters as in the past. And the number is shrinking fast.
Hunters in Japan are an aging population, dying off rapidly with few successors. An urban-centered, technologically absorbed culture, some of the world's most restrictive gun laws and the high cost in time and effort to obtain a hunting license have discouraged field sports, even though the country has plenty of game animals.
Unlike the United States, where hunting is considered a right by many and is an everyman’s activity, countries such as Japan, and many in Europe, restrict it to the elite. If an ordinary guy hunts, he probably has to poach. Remember Robin Hood and the king’s deer?
Hunting, if it became easier and more popular, probably would work to control deer in Japan. It does here in Connecticut. “Hunting is a long-cherished tradition in the United States and still is vibrant in Connecticut,” says Rick Jacobson, director of the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division.
Without hunters, Connecticut would be facing the same problem as Nagano Prefecture. There simply are not enough large predators, here, even coyotes, to control deer herds. “If the coyote population were large enough to constrain deer herds, it would have impact on people,” says Jacobson. Pets and even children could be threatened.
Moreover, says Jacobson, the Connecticut environment cannot support enough
large predators to put a sufficient dent in deer herds.
The deer doing the dirty work in Japan is the Sika deer, an Asian species a little
smaller than the whitetail that retains its spots when adult. Its name comes from the Japanese word for deer, “Shika.” Japan’s total deer population has been doubling every four years and now approaches a million.
The stronghold of the species on Honshu is a mountain range — more precisely, three ranges — called the Japanese Alps, some of which surpass 10,000 feet. Wolves were once abundant in these mountains. They could be again, according to The Japan Wolf Association, which has lobbied for reintroduction since the 1990s.
The group was inspired by American conservation groups that supported the federal government’s reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone and other parts of the western United States. Wolf reintroduction in this country usually evokes howls from some — by no means, all — deer hunters who do not want lupine competition for their quarry.
A Game Study Group has been formed in Japan to examine the deer problem. One member, a chef, has campaigned for people to eat venison, thus creating a marketable product that promotes hunting and trapping of deer. Some health advocates urge serving of venison in school lunches, because it is low calorie, and high in iron and protein. (The other white meat?) No stretch to say it is probably healthier than Kobe beef. One group even made a major show out of serving venison at a farmer’s market in Tokyo.
Japanese consumers have not been particularly enthusiastic about eating deer meat. This is surprising, given that the Japanese seem to have an appetite for consuming the flesh of all sorts of exotic wild things. One of the nation’s most prized and expensive delicacies is fugu, actually cooked poisonous puffer fish, which if improperly prepared can be the diner’s last meal. It sometimes seems as if almost anything that swims is meat for the Japanese palate. Conservationists worldwide blame the lust of Japanese consumers for whale meat and raw tuna for decline of both.
Japan could solve the problem by bringing in foreign hunters other than wolves. Sportsmen from America and Europe would pay big dollars to hunt deer in Japan, especially if a Ginza visit was thrown into the junket. Right now, though, it may be easier to get a hunting license on Mars. Come to think of it, there may be another way out of the dilemma. The Game Study Group might contact California and try to borrow a few of its 6,000 cougars.