【Series】Spirits of the Kamuy landscape (19 ) Sables peek out from hole in snow

Two sables peeking out from a snow tunnel

Cold midwinter days continue deep within the Tokachi region mountains. In a forest covered with up to a meter of snow, I encountered the cute faces of sables.

Covered in a thick white winter coat of fur, sables do not appear even slightly concerned about the cold temperatures. They dig horizontal and vertical tunnels in the snow, build tunnel entrances around the bases of trees, and poke their faces out. Hidden away from sight in the snow, the carnivorous sables catch and eat small wandering animals like Japanese red-backed voles.

The name sable is synonymous with high quality fur. In Hokkaido, they were over-hunted in the Meiji Era, and their numbers dwindled. Sable hunting was prohibited in 1920, but it is unclear how much their numbers have recovered in the intervening century. Sightings are rare, and the sables are still shrouded in many unsolved mysteries, such as how their ecology works, and what their breeding process is like.

In the winter it is possible to follow their footprints in the snow. But after the snow melts, the only means of observing them lies in sable feces left behind on mountain hiking trails. The mysteries of the sable seem unsolvable.