Verification of effectiveness of firecrackers, sprays and the like in the prevention of brown bear attacks

As alpine trails begin to open in Hokkaido, there are more and more opportunities for people to go hiking and gathering wild vegetables in the mountains. This season, attention is particularly focused on products to protect people from brown bears. But how effective are they? We asked experts how to use and dispose of them correctly. (By Uchiyama Takeshi of the Hokkaido Shimbun Press, General News Center)

Bear sprays, which are the focus of attention in Hokkaido

■Attention is growing due to accidents resulting in injuries

 “The number of bear spray inquiries and purchases has increased by 30% compared to last year. The fact that there have been brown bear attacks on a nearby mountains like Mt. Sankaku has heightened the sense of danger among hikers.” This is how Higuchi Shinichiro, who is in charge of bear counter-measure products at the Sapporo Akarenga Terrace branch of the Mont Bell outdoor goods store analyzes the situation. Not only mountain hikers and wild vegetable pickers, but also forestry workers who go into the mountains to work are purchasing more and more products.

The bear repellent spray is made from a pungent ingredient extracted from red pepper that is sprayed into the face to repel bears and other wild animals. The spray generally has a range of 6 to 10 meters.
Iwai Motoki, head of Higuma Juku (brown bear school) in the town of Engaru in the Okhotsk region of eastern Hokkaido, says that the sprays are “more effective than hunting guns at close range” and urges hunters to carry them. When two people were attacked on Mt. Sankaku at the end of March, the person that wasn’t being attacked deployed the spray and succeeded in repelling the attack. When there is more than one person in a group, it is safer for each person to carry his or her own spray.

The reporter using a bear spray that had exceeded its expiry date of March 2008

■The stinging sensation is relentless

 As a reporter, I had a bear repellant spray in my house. When I checked the expiry date, it was quite old – March 2008 to be precise. It was still unused, so I went into the mountains where there were no houses and used the spray.

Wearing a mask, I lightly pressed the spray lever and the contents spurted out in a vigorous red mist. When I pressed the lever all the way down, the spray lasted about 5 seconds, and reached a distance of about 5 meters.

When I returned to my car some time later, the contents seemed to have adhered to my mask, and I felt an intense stinging sensation in the area around my nose and mouth, so much so that I could not wear the mask. I checked the video footage taken by the person who accompanied me, and it seems that the spray was blown onto my face as a result of a headwind. Even after washing my face, the stinging did not subside for two or three hours.

Hand-thrown ‘animal-extermination pyrotechnics’ made Yamani Obara Hanabi, the only manufacturer of such products in Japan

■ Firecrackers are also available

Hand-thrown firecrackers are bear repellant products for more advanced users, which use loud noises to drive away the bears. These are ‘animal-extermination pyrotechnics’ made by Yamani Obara Hanabi in the city of Kitahiroshima, the only manufacturer of such fireworks in Japan. These firecrackers are known by names such as ‘Go-on-tama’ and ‘Todo-dama’ (roaring balls).

 Five grams of gunpowder is placed in a paper ball 3.5 cm in diameter, along with rice husks to produce a loud sound. One of their main features is that they are designed to be used in the mountains, so they blow apart and scatter instantly, and there are no flames.

The firecrackers are products for more advanced users, and those who purchase them are required to receive ‘safety training’ from the Japan Pyrotechnics Association. However, orders from wild vegetable pickers and construction companies working in the mountains have been increasing recently, and the company is aiming to manufacture approximately 20,000 units this year, a 30% increase on last year’s production.

Factory manager Echizen Daisuke conducted an experiment to detonate the product in the mountains. He lit the fuse, placed it on the ground, and retreated about 10 meters. Approximately 10 seconds later, a loud bang and explosive shock could be experienced. The firecrackers are intended to make a loud noise to alert bears of the presence of humans in a bid to prevent unexpected encounters when they enter a thicket where visibility is poor, when gathering wild vegetables, for example.

■Take care when disposing of sprays

In the case of Sapporo, the rule is to put used spray cans in a transparent bag and put them out on the ‘burnable garbage’ collection day, without puncturing the cans. However, with bear sprays, which contain strong irritants, it is better to hand them in, in person.

In 2011, the City of Sapporo began collecting unused and half-used spray cans from citizens free of charge. Currently, they are accepted at a total of 61 locations in the city, including 6 waste management offices and 51 fire stations and sub-fire stations.

Familiar ‘bear bells’ and radios are also helpful in avoiding encounters with bears, by creating noise. Recently, a bear bell that can be muffled with a single touch is available for those who are concerned about the sound of the bell in urban areas. How about carrying one as a “good-luck charm” while taking part in outdoor recreational activities, such as camping and fishing, which are becoming more and more popular?