A new guardian stands watch in Takikawa City, Japan. With gleaming red eyes, bone-chilling howls, and bared fangs, this robotic wolf named the Monster Wolf is designed to protect urban areas from the rising threat of bear attacks.

The Monster Wolf stands approximately 120 cm tall.

The robotic wolf activates when its motion sensors detect movement. It then swivels its head, flashes its glowing red eyes, and emits a variety of frightening sounds, including wolf howls, machinery noises, and even human screams.

The Monster Wolf looks and sounds fearsome, though it is harmless to humans. Its purpose is to scare bears away and prevent them from entering urban areas.

The brainchild behind the Monster Wolf is the innovative Japanese company, Wolf Kamuy, led by its President, Motohiro Miyasaka. Demand for the Monster Wolf has surged across Japan, with many other municipalities seeking to invest in them as a means of bear deterrence.

The rising bear attacks in Japan have become a cause for concern, with human-bear encounters increasing in urban areas. Bears are drawn to these areas by easily accessible food sources such as garbage.

One significant contributing factor to the rising bear-human encounters is the phenomenon of depopulation in rural areas. More young people choose to leave their ancestral homes in rural farming villages. Simultaneously, Japan’s urban population expands, with a growing preference for non-mountainous regions.

The ongoing transformation of Japan’s landscape and lifestyle has profound consequences for its wildlife, particularly its bear population. Young bears, driven by dwindling forested habitats and the scent of easily accessible food, embark on journeys that lead them into untended woodlands, close to cities. These bears adapt to urbanisation and, troublingly, grow less fearful of humans.

The shift in bear behaviour is largely observed in the northern region of Hokkaido, where brown bears are the dominant species. Over the last six decades, Hokkaido has recorded more than 150 bear attacks.

The rest of Japan is inhabited by Asian black bears, identifiable by the cream-coloured crescent mark on their chests. These bears are generally less aggressive than their brown counterparts. They also experience habitat loss and adapt to the changing landscape.

Bear sightings and incidents are becoming more common, particularly in April, after bears emerge from hibernation. They forage and store food in September and October. Fatal attacks remain infrequent. However, the growing number of attacks and injuries has raised concerns among experts and the public.

Professor Shinsuke Koike, a leading expert on bears, biodiversity, and forest ecosystems, suggests that the surge in attacks may eventually lead to a higher number of fatalities.

One contributing factor is the reduced availability of acorns, a critical food source for bears, especially Asian black bears. This has forced bears to venture closer to human settlements seeking sustenance.

Acorn harvests in Japan are known to follow a boom-and-bust cycle, with exceptional crops one autumn often followed by a poor harvest the next year. Climate change has thrown this cycle into disarray, with more frequent and intense storms affecting acorn availability.

Global warming aggravates these weather events, contributing to the unpredictability of this food source.

Global warming impacts oak trees, the source of acorns, in various ways. Warmer weather can lead to smaller acorn crops by disrupting the pollination process. Oak trees typically bloom simultaneously, ensuring effective cross-pollination. However, warmer spring seasons, due to global warming, extend the blooming period and create asynchrony in flowering. This, in turn, reduces acorn harvests in the autumn by roughly 20%.

Tsutomu Mano, a research biologist at the Hokkaido Research Organisation, highlights a critical challenge: officials’ lack of wildlife management expertise. Additionally, coordination problems between government ministries further complicate the ability to address the bear issue effectively.

On the other hand, the authorities have limited options beyond educating the public about bear encounters and depending on ageing hunters.