Friday, August 22, 2008

Wildlife in Kiso: A chat with one of Nagano's top hunters

The other day I had the privilege of meeting with T-san, widely considered Otaki's top hunter, and one of the best in Nagano prefecture. The conversation was illuminating. T-san has a detailed and nuanced understanding of the movement of wildlife in Otaki, the Kiso region, and Japan as a whole.

T-san spoke of what he thought was the loonacy of the National Forest Agency's heavy cutting in the Kiso Valley, and Otaki in particular. He considered it a waste that trees that had been nurtured some hundreds of years were felled with little thought. Now, he lamented, it's just bamboo grass (a hearty, fast growing grass that dominates much of the groundcover in Otaki).

In the postwar period, employing this kind of clear-cutting, the Forest Agency advanced further and further into the mountains around Otaki. Coversion of older, mixed forests, to younger, plantation-style forests reduced the overall area of suitable wildlife habitat. With less and less habitat in the back forests, wildlife have been forced into smaller and smaller ranges, which has pushed them up against and into human communities.

T-san's assessment was reinforced for me on the way home when on the road I encountered ears of corn that had been devoured and tossed there by macaques.

So, that was the shop talk. After our chat, T-san's wife took me into the backroom of the home to show me some of her husband's work. My hometown is full of hunting enthusiasts, so I'm not unfamiliar with the fruits of the hunter's labors, but this was my first time encountering such a scene in Japan--it was a bit surreal.

I am not, at heart, a hunter, nor a supporter of recreational hunting. However, I respect the cultural traditions and rights of local communities when it comes to environmental management decisions. Also, I recognize that hunting often fulfills cultural, social, and ecological needs. In Otaki, bear hunting has long been a social, cultural, and economic activity. Winter hunting camps, where groups of men used to spend weeks at a time, still remain in some remote areas. This being said, some bear populations in Japan are in danger, but the solution is not as simple as allowing bears to roam as they will. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is currently undertaking a project to study the situation of bears in Japan--their initial assessment seems fair (you can find it here).

I-no-shishi (wild boar) and kamoshika (Japanese serow) are also hunted with some frequency.

As our visit came to an end T-san and his wife invited me to come back in the fall to drink and feast on i-no-shishi (absolutely delicious--by the way). They also showed me their bee hives, from which they make honey using wild Japanese bees. T-san explained to me that the bees gather pollen from a variety of wild flowers, which gives the honey an amber color and a "wild" taste. I was delighted when T-san presented me with a bottle of the wild honey--I gazed with wide eyes at it's rich color and dreamt of slathering it on a piece of homemade bread. I also received peaches that were fresh picked from a local orchard. The peaches were somewhat small, but fragrant (I gobbled one for breakfast this morning and was pleasantly surprised by its sweetness).

Thank you T-san!!

1 comment:

kevin said...

I feel much the same as you in terms of hunting. I also grew up in a huntin' region and all my friends were hunters. (I was not). I used to think hunters were just assholes who liked guns and got a kick out of killing things. Living here though, I am actually considering getting a hunting liscence. Mostly for the cultural and social reasons you mention.

I still disagree with some of the hunting that goes on here, like getting paid 20,000 yen to shoot a monkey - and then just throw the body away. A local hunter said "think of the farmers feelings. He puts so much work into the field and then it is stolen by a monkey". Well, our potatoes were raided by monkeys but I can't really blame them. They are just doing what monkeys do. On the other hand, we often see outsiders picking sansai from local fields. In a sense this is worse because they KNOW they are stealing. I wonder why no one would ever consider it OK to shoot them...

Thanks for the WWF bear link by the way.