Eli Sooker is a New Zealand-born nature conservationist. After working for some time in his home country, he started exploring the world on his own and ended up living in Japan. There, he discovered aspects of Japanese nature which people do not often talk about. He also became involved in local bear conservation. In this interview, he explains the conflicts between humans and bears in Japan, tells us what makes Japanese nature special, and advises us on protecting it and enjoying it at the same time.
※ All the pictures featuring in this article were taken and provided by Eli.
Being a Nature Conservationist
You define yourself as a “traveling conservationist.” How was your interest in nature conservation born?
There has not really been a turning point: I cannot remember not loving nature. It has always been like this since I was very young. I grew up in rural New Zealand before cell phones became popular. My friends and I would just play in the forest, on the farms. We would make huts and these sorts of things.
On top of that, though, some of my friends nicknamed me “Nature Kid.” I spent a lot of time reading books about animals worldwide, especially from Africa. I have always been interested in animals and nature.
The name “Traveling Conservationist” is something I came up with to describe my blog. I have been keen on writing as well since I was very young. When I was in university, I started traveling abroad alone for the first time. I felt like I needed an outlet for all the things traveling had opened up for me, so I started a blog about travel.
After a while, my career in nature conservation kicked off. I started being interested in wildlife photography, and I started incorporating that and conservation stories into the blog as well. That is why I decided to change the name to “The Traveling Conservationist.” Now, I occasionally get paid to write articles on travel or conservation on a freelance basis, which is really cool.
You are from New Zealand and have visited countries all over the globe. What has led you to live in Japan?
I started by being interested in manga and anime. I have always loved writing since I was quite young, and I read a lot of adventure and fantasy. That had led me to discover manga and anime. I wanted to become a writer of something like that. That is why I decided to study Japanese and go to Japan to study on exchange.
I went to Akita International University, which is in a very rural area. I was surrounded by rice fields, and there was just one convenience store there. Being from a rural area myself, I liked it. I did not know Japan had such nature before I saw that.
That got me interested. Later, I started going to other countryside areas in Tohoku [the northeast region of Japan] and Hokkaido by myself. I stayed in my tent and did hitchhiking and stuff like that.
I came back later on a working holiday visa, again spending time in rural areas. Finally, I got a full-time working visa as a nature guide and as a bear conservationist. That was in Nagano.
What are your activities as a conservationist?
The writing, the blog, and the photography started out of my own interest and developed into a little bit of freelance work occasionally.
My career as a conservationist is a bit different. I started as a field-based ranger in New Zealand. I did pest and weed control. It is a big job in New Zealand because we have many introduced species, and endemic species are very vulnerable. You might have heard about the kiwi, which is a bird that cannot fly. It is easy for their eggs and young to be eaten by rats, stoats, and weasels.
Were these rats and weasels brought into New Zealand by ships?
Exactly. And there are lots of other birds like the kiwi that are vulnerable like this. A lot of conservation work in New Zealand is about pest and weed control of invasive plants or animals.
Then in Japan, I worked for Picchio. They have two teams, and I worked in both the teams. I was a nature tour guide in the eco tour team, and I was also part of the bear team. In the bear team, they do a few different tasks. They make sure that bears stay out of town and out of conflict with humans. We would set capture traps close to town, and in the town, in case any bears came around. We also released the captured bears back into the forest. We would also put radio collars on them, track these bears, and chase them away if they entered the town.
More recently, I worked in Shikoku a little bit, which was part-time work. In English, it is called the Shikoku Institute of Natural History. They have a population of 20 Asian black bears that they have nicknamed “the island bears.” Asian black bears have already gone extinct in Kyushu, and it is crucial to protect the last 20 on this island. A lot of people do not even know that there are bears in Shikoku.
That is true. I went a lot to Shikoku for work the last two years, and nobody ever talked about the bears, even though they mentioned other animals.
Yes. They are estimated to be only 20 left, and only in a certain area, between Tokushima and Kochi prefectures. It is extremely rare that you would see one. But they are there.
The Conflicts between Humans and Bears in Japan
“When the bear population got too low, they stopped the cull, but it was already too late.”
What are the main reasons the bears went extinct in Kyushu or are disappearing in Shikoku now?
The reason they are disappearing in Shikoku is mostly because of the forestry conflict. You have probably noticed that in Shikoku, there are a lot of cedar and Hinoki cypress plantations. They used to be the main income in Shikoku. The bears would scratch and damage the bottom of the trees. The forestry people had problems with them, so they had a big cull of bears at the time. Researchers from Shikoku Institute of Natural History have been researching for about 20 years now and have concluded a population estimate of 20.
I am not sure about the Kyushu situation, but I think it must be a similar forestry conflict. In Shikoku, the government had a big cull in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. There were monetary rewards for how many bears you killed. When the bear population became low, they stopped the cull, but it was already too late.
Can you tell us more about the situation of bears in Japan?
Japan is home to two species, the brown bear in Hokkaido, and the Asian black bear in Honshu and Shikoku, now extinct on Kyushu. Although the Asian black bear is classified as globally “vulnerable,” the Japanese population has not been studied in recent years. The sightings have been increasing. We do not know whether this is because the Japanese population is increasing, habitat and food are decreasing, or maybe something else.
In any case, the Japanese black bear has been getting a hard time in the media during the past few years because of the sightings, occasionally resulting in crop damages and even attacks. I have heard details about these incidents, and I looked into this through reports because I was interested. These incidents all occurred because the appropriate measures were not taken. It would be a lot easier living alongside bears if we had the chance to educate everyone on how to avoid bear encounters and how to respond if an encounter does occur.
For the population in Shikoku, the situation is quite different. It has been studied and is estimated at only 20 bears. They do not have conflict, so it is more about the problem of the population going extinct, rather than conflict as what is happening on Honshu [the main island of Japan].
“When in nature, it is also good to carry a bell and make a lot of noise to warn the bear of your presence. They are usually really shy, and if they have a chance, they will run away.”
What would be appropriate measures?
For example, people can put electric fences around crop fields. And in case of an encounter, avoid provoking bears. People tend to want to yell at the bear to scare it away. The best thing to do is usually to stay quiet. Do not turn around because that is a vulnerable position, and the bear might use it as a chance to attack. Instead, slowly walk backward, keeping your eyes on the bear until it is well out of sight.
When in nature, it is also good to carry a bell and make noise to warn the bear of your presence. In many encounters, bears get a shock because they didn’t know you were there; they were eating food or whatever. If you suddenly appear behind a bear, they will freak out. They are usually really shy, and if they have a chance, they will run away.
When you started working with Picchio, was it your first time working with bears?
Yes, it was the first time.
How did you feel the first time you had to catch bears and deal with them? It must have been impressive.
Yes, it was really cool. I’ve noticed that a lot of Japanese people tend to have only one reaction towards the bear, which is to be scared. They say, “Kowai, kowai,” [“Scary, scary”]. But for many foreigners and me, I guess, our reaction is “Wah, this is amazing! This is a beautiful animal.” I was excited and amazed to see them in the wild. I have had always wanted to work on wild animals and human conflict, so it was really cool for me.
Let us go back to your freelance career. What message would you like to transmit to the world through your articles and pictures?
I’d like people to understand that conservation is essential not only for nature but also for us. We rely on it for food, shelter, and so on. I also want to show that spending time in nature and working on conservation is fun. We had interns at Picchio, and they told us what a fantastic experience that was. There is a value in working with nature that you cannot find in the city or in working for a big corporation.
I am hoping that if people can see these kinds of experiences, it will encourage them to get closer to nature and that is going to be good for conservation as well. It is like a “Circle of Life” in which people will get more interested, and we will get something good back out of it.
What was your most moving encounter or experience related to Japanese nature?
That is a hard question because there are a lot. I enjoyed being a tour guide and telling people all sorts of stories and seeing their reactions.
If I had to pick one moment, it would be the following. At Picchio, there was one time when a coworker and I went to a neighboring town to help relocate a bear that had gotten stuck in a deer trap. Just for some background, the deer and boar populations in Japan are currently so high that it’s tipping the ecological balance. They are eating more plants than they should. So, the government commissions hunters to trap them.
But sometimes, bears also step into these traps, and on those occasions, the only solution is to shoot the bear. However, if there is a local wildlife center, for example, Picchio, we can come and tranquilize the bear. You have to be qualified to use a tranquilizer.
Anyway, on this occasion, a mother bear was caught in a deer trap. The hunter told us that her cubs were nearby, but there was no sign of them at first. We did our usual thing, my coworker fired a tranquilizer at her, and once she fell asleep, we freed her from the trap. We took measurements and DNA samples for research, and then with our combined strength, carried her into the cage we had brought for relocation. It is a cage we use to get the bear back to the mountain.
It was around this point that we started hearing squealing sounds, like a baby pig. And then we saw two tiny black figures in the bushes nearby. It was my first time to see wild bear cubs and at only about 6 meters of distance. It was really special! I mean, everyone loves baby animals [laughs].
We were a bit worried since we did not want the cubs to lose their mother, so we released her as close as we could to the capture point without posing a danger to people. There was a farm not too far away. We were pretty confident that we released her in an appropriate place. As it happens, the same bear with her cubs in tow was identified later on in the year. She had found her cubs, which was good to know.
How to Enjoy and Protect Japanese Nature
Are there some points that make Japanese nature different from other countries’?
Japan is famous for its unique history, culture, temples, festivals, technology, gadgets and cars, and pop culture. You do not really hear about nature. So when I go home or talk to friends on the phone, people ask me what I do in Japan and what my life is like. They are very surprised to learn that I work in bear conservation, live surrounded by forests, and spend my days off camping and taking pictures of animals.
70% of Japan is covered with forests. There are so many mountains. Karuizawa, where I live, is surrounded by so many hiking trails it is hard to choose. Even for me, being from New Zealand with outstanding nature, a place like this with so many outdoor activities to choose from is pretty unique.
From an ecological point of view, Japanese nature is characterized by different types of forest, native beech forests are notably beautiful. You find them at higher altitudes. There are also a bunch of unique species: raccoon dogs, cranes, snow monkeys, giant flying squirrels. There is also the serow or “kamoshika” in Japanese, a relative of cattle that looks like an odd mix of donkey and goat, but with the shaggy coat of a wolf. It is a really weird animal.
Japan is also one of the only island countries that have bears. It is home to the smallest island known to sustain them, Shikoku. This also happens to be the rarest population of Asiatic black bears, estimated at just 20 individuals. If only more people knew about it.
Hokkaido in the north is different again, home to the rarest species of owl in the world and the densest population of brown bears in the world at Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I could go on and on about Japanese nature!
What is your favorite place so far?
It has to be Shiretoko. I have never seen anything like it. There are so many animals around that you are guaranteed to see something.
How is the attitude regarding nature conservation and eco-tourism in Japan compared to what you have observed in other countries?
As I have said before, Japan is famous for a lot of things, but nature is not one of them, which is weird because it is so easy to be close to nature here.
I feel like people here focus on living the most convenient way possible, with “modern” and “trendy” things to do. When I studied in Akita, I realized how many young people were moving to big cities like Tokyo or Osaka. Even though “modern” is not sustainable, this seems to be “the thing to do.”
Maybe this trend started as an emulation of the West, after the war. I’ve heard that Japan has not always been like this, and that it used to be very close with Mother Nature. The good news is, there are still people in the countryside who value nature. The older generation is closer to nature. It just doesn’t seem to be “trendy.” That is probably why there is not a lot in terms of eco-tourism here yet.
In many Western countries, animals and conservation are actually quite trendy, if you can call (animals and conservation) “trendy” [laughs], and eco-tourism has gotten really popular. There is a lot of potential for Japan to succeed with eco-tourism. That way, Japan could draw attention to conserving its native species. If it is not trendy in Japan yet or to the people in Japan, they could start by marketing to foreign tourists already interested in nature.
What are the best ways and places to enjoy Japanese nature while protecting it or making sure not to harm it?
There are National Parks all over the country, with fairly easy access. You have a lot to choose from. Restricting to the things I know, which are mostly in the north of Japan, here is what I would recommend. However, do not hesitate to explore online on your own as there are many great places I’ve yet to visit.
As I explained earlier, when you hike, I recommend carrying a bear bell and making lots of noise when walking in the forest, like clapping your hands from time to time or talking to your companions. In that case, it is unlikely you will encounter a bear, but it doesn’t hurt to know the right practices if you do encounter one. Do not make loud, sudden noises or provoke the bear. Instead, quietly walk backward while facing the bear until you are safely out of sight. Never turn your back on a bear, as this is a vulnerable position, and the bears’ instinct to attack may kick in. As I said, they are generally shy and will run away if given a chance.
I also recommend camping in Japan, even if it is more expensive than in New Zealand. If you are in Hokkaido, do not do freedom camping because there might be bears. Use the local campgrounds that have fences all around.
“Feeding animals increases the chances of attack, spreading diseases, or damaging crops. Please do not feed wild animals.”
On the opposite, are there mistakes everybody should avoid?
Be careful of your rubbish. You can put it in smell-proof containers. If you are camping, you will probably bring a car anyway so you can lock it away in your vehicle as well, just to be extra safe.
You may think that if it is a natural area with no people, it’s okay to dump food. However, bears that get used to eating human food or coming within the range of areas used by humans tend to be considered a risk by the local government. They end up being shot.
That happened recently in Shiretoko. Some fishermen left fish guts on site by the river. A bear got accustomed to visiting, and as a result, had to be killed for people’s safety because there were a lot of people coming there.
Lastly, do not feed animals. There are some places that do feed animals, and I cannot say if this is good or not, but at least it is concentrated in one area. Feeding animals increases the chances of attack, spreading diseases, or damaging crops. Please do not feed wild animals.
Feeding wild animals disturbs the ecological balance itself. For example, if you feed an animal that eats seeds, it will stop eating these seeds and carrying them. That tree will not spread anymore. If a bear eats human food, like cake, it will get used to humans’ smell and think, “Oh, this is nice. I wonder where I can get more.”
They will then come to the city, be considered a danger, and get shot, am I right?
Are there other ways we can help to protect Japanese nature?
I recommend doing eco-tours for sure. In Shiretoko, I recommend Fox Cruises, which is in Utoro. They are maybe not as close to the shore as cruises in Rausu, but it is a more stable boat, and the crew is very friendly. I actually became friends with the driver of the boat there. There is also “Washi no Yado” for viewing Blakiston’s fish owls.
I’m personally not a fan of zoos, but I’ve heard good things about Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa. It may be a good way to see animals that are difficult to spot in the wild, like raccoon dogs.
Regarding other ways to help, you can buy souvenirs from nature centers and NPOs. You can also donate to organizations like the Shikoku Institute of Natural History, Picchio Wildlife Research Center, and Shiretoko Nature Foundation.
If you have the LINE app, you can buy “Save the Island Bear” stickers for just 120 yen/50 coins. The money goes to conserving the last 20 bears in Shikoku. Just search for “Save the Island Bear.” Under search results, make sure the “Creators” tab is selected, not the “Official” tab.
Do you have any projects or objectives for this year and further?
2020 was a tough year for a lot of people, and I do not have full-time work anymore. I thought this could be an opportunity to improve my academics since, until now, I have been doing practical jobs in conservation for the last few years. I’m planning to start a master’s degree in October this year or April next year, focusing on bear and human coexistence. The theme is not confirmed yet, but I would like to do something about how bears react to human behavior.
I am still involved with the “Island Bear” project. I am going to help make some promotional videos and translate the Shikoku Institute of Natural History’s website into English. If the timing is right, I would like to attend a bear capture in Shikoku, which only happens a few times a year because the population is so small. They only have a few traps open.
I hope to go back to Shiretoko, do some more photography, and maybe link up with some friends there.
Being a Responsible Guest of Japanese Nature
Talking about responsible tourism with Eli reminded me of a personal experience I had a few years ago in Thailand, when I visited Khao Yai National Park with an eco-tour guide. At the end of the day, when heading back to the eco tour lodging by car, the road was crowded with hundreds of monkeys who were just sitting there. The guide told us that the monkeys were waiting because tourists would throw food at them on the drive home. That episode made me realize how individual acts from independent tourists could snowball into a huge problem for the local wild animals. Since I visited the park, Khao Yai made the news several times for its recurring conflicts between wild elephants and tourists.
Japan is not as touristy as Thailand, and as Eli mentioned, most tourists still have to discover that Japan has a lot of beautiful nature and wild animals to offer. However, places like Shiretoko are already facing the risks linked to tourists whose number is increasing, and the fact some of them are acting dangerously when they want to take pictures of the local bears.
The fact that tourism in Japanese nature is yet to become trendy may be a blessing rather than a curse. Now that responsible travel is becoming a new norm for many tourists, it may be an opportunity to make sure that visitors and tourism businesses alike adopt the best practices before a tourism boom happens.
I believe nature conservationists like Eli, eco-tour guides, and nature-related NPOs should become the first “materials” of reference to consult before visiting Japanese nature. Thanks to the information they provide through their websites and tours, not only do they support sustainability and help visitors stay safe, but their knowledge and experience also help us see the beauties we cannot see on our own.