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Thursday, February 29, 2024

High-tech wolf keeps bears at bay in Japanese town

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Its fierce, blood-red eyes glow menacingly. Its shaggy body, hackles raised, is poised to pounce and its bushy head swings back and forth as it intently tracks its prey. An intense round of growls and other aggressive sounds spews from its fanged mouth. What is this demonic dog-like creature holding sway in the middle of the countryside in Takikawa, a small Japanese town on the northern island of Hokkaido? It resembles a wolf, but due to a long history of hunting, wolves have been extinct in Japan for over a century. It turns out this fearsome beast is actually not even an animal. It’s a robot designed by a Japanese company called Ohta Seiki.

When Takikawa and other places in Japan began experiencing a significant increase in bear sightings, including several injuries and even deaths from bear attacks, officials knew something drastic had to be done. Takikawa residents rarely saw bears around their neighborhoods; maybe someone would spy one every few years, so the influx was especially alarming. It appears the bears were encroaching upon the town in order to find food before they began their hibernation season. This was occurring because their typical diet of acorns and nuts was becoming scarce in the forest and mountain regions. This scarcity was most likely the result of the effects of deforestation, which in itself is a larger environmental issue, and has caused the bears’ habitats and food sources to dwindle. With less food to be found near home, the hungry bears had no choice but to cross the dividing line into more populated human territory to search there.

Takikawa government officials bought two “Monster Wolf” robots from Ohta Seiki, a high-precision parts manufacturing business. They installed one of the mechanical wolves in a residential district and planted the other in a suburban field. The goal of these wolf scarecrows was to frighten the wild bears away from human-populated territory. The robot wolves contain an infrared motion detector, which when activated by anything approaching the robot, triggers the scary movements and sounds. The wolf’s LED eyeballs glow red, its head moves from side to side and its constant snarl reveals sharp teeth. Earsplitting noises emit from a loudspeaker. There are a variety of 60 shrill sounds that can be heard a kilometer away. The sounds include gunfire, howling, dogs barking, machinery noises and a threatening human hunter’s voice. The variation of sounds is important so that the bears do not get used to any one noise and grow emboldened. The mechanical wolf looks bigger than it really is. It’s about four feet in length and a little over two and half feet in height. However, fixed firmly on supports in a field, it has an imposing presence even before the sounds and movements are triggered. And when those automations are triggered, bears beware!

The Monster Wolf project seems to have worked as desired as bear sightings went down to nil in Takikawa after the robot installations. Takikawa was aware beforehand that there was reason to believe that the plan would be successful. In 2016, the Monster Wolf had been introduced in other areas to keep crops and farmlands safe from wild animals like monkeys, deer and of course, bears. Video was set up and showed the animals fleeing in fear when the robot wolf howled and performed its other actions towards them. Therefore, Takikawa believed they were making a smart investment.

More wolf robots have been purchased from Ohta Seika by several other towns and are now being used across Japan in islands from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Different locations may have specific needs for the robots. Unlike in Takikawa where the bears were the biggest threat, in other cities the wolves are used to protect crops from wild boars, deer or other predators. Whatever the specific need, the formidable robot wolves provide an effective deterrent to the unwanted invaders.

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