Have you ever seen any of those “what-if” documentaries that show you what would happen if all people disappeared tomorrow? Using computer imagery, these programmes show buildings falling into disrepair, roads becoming overgrown with grasses and animals making a comeback in eerily deserted cities. Monuments are particularly well-documented: birds are shown nesting in the Statue of Liberty; the Sydney Harbour Bridge collapses into Port Jackson and the Eiffel Tower topples onto the Champ de Mars.
In a less spectacular way, Japan is currently experiencing its own version of these documentaries: the resurgence of nature in areas that have been dominated by people until recently. With a shrinking population, and in particular a shrinking rural population, Japan is seeing a resurgence of bears, boars and monkeys.
Since the turn of the millennium there has been an increase in the number of bear sightings: there were nearly 13,000 in 2018 alone. The reason for this is that the dwindling number of rural Japanese has emboldened animals. Bears feel more confident to enter villages in broad daylight if there are few people around. So it is no surprise that the largest increase in sightings has happened where the population is falling fastest, such as Akita prefecture in north-west Honshu. Not only are there more sightings, but there are also more bear attacks – each year scores of people are injured and a handful are killed by bears. Deer are also becoming more numerous and are causing more damage to farmland and causing more erosion. But as true wilderness grows back with foresters and farmers dying off or leaving the rural areas, the habitat for bears, deer, monkey and boars are growing back too.
Aside from there being fewer humans around to scare off animals and invade their habitats, the other benefit that wild animals have is that there are fewer hunters to keep numbers down. Apparently the average age of a hunter in Japan is a sprightly 68, so it is perhaps not surprising that fewer animals are being killed. Indeed, the growing numbers of wild animals has led some villages to consider changing their layout or putting up boundary fences. The government has even resolved to cull certain types of boars, deer and monkeys by 2023. As Japan continues to become less populated and more urban, we can expect to see more evidence of a returning wildlife.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.