Japan bamboo-pickers defy bear attack warning despite deaths

TOKYO (AFP) - Residents seeking seasonal bamboo shoots in northern Japan are ignoring warnings to avoid a mountain despite four deaths from apparent bear attacks, officials said.

Bear attacks on humans are not unusual in mountainous Akita prefecture on Japan's main island of Honshu, but fatal ones are rare, with only eight tallied from 1979 through last year.

Last month three men, two in their 70s and one in his 60s, died in apparent bear attacks while harvesting bamboo shoots in three separate incidents in a mountain forest near Kazuno city.

The body of a fourth victim, a badly mauled 74-year-old woman, was discovered on Friday, with reports saying she had been picking wild plants.

Hunters killed an Asian black bear just 10 metres from the spot where her remains were discovered. Public broadcaster NHK reported Monday, citing a specialist, that it probably attacked all four because a human body part was found inside it.

The expert, Toshiki Aoi, an emeritus professor at Iwate University, however, noted that it is extremely unusual for that type of bear to eat people.

Prefecture and city officials have told locals to stay away but some are not heeding the warnings, according to prefectural official Masaru Kobayashi.

"Some people ignore our warning, thinking they won't encounter bears, or they can handle the dangerous situation," Kobayashi, who is in charge of environmental conservation, told AFP.

In addition to prefectural and city officials, police and firefighters are patrolling the mountains daily encouraging anyone there to leave, Kobayashi said.

"It's impossible to set up a fence around the mountains," he said. "All we can do is to advise locals not to go in." Makoto Aoyama, a Kazuno city official, said bamboo shoots are a popular seasonal product and some residents make a living selling them.

"But there is always a chance to encounter bears because bamboo shoots are their staple in spring," she said.

The city set up several bear traps on Friday but they have not captured any, she added.

Earlier this month a seven-year-old boy was found safe after being abandoned by his parents in a bear-inhabited forest on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido.

He survived for nearly a week after being left in dense forest as punishment for throwing stones at passing cars. His ordeal provoked outrage at home and aboard and sparked a debate about child discipline in Japan.