Can Japan’s “Lost Wolves” be Reintroduced?

It has been at least a century since the last Japanese wolf called out into the night. Indeed, for Japan, with its mega-cities, human-carved landscapes and even cemented riverbeds, it might seem ridiculous to think that wolves—two species, in fact—once roamed this fascinating but thoroughly modern and human-dominated landscape.

Surely, this is the land of Pikachu and the monsters depicted in Japanese Anime, not a place where actual apex predators take down deer and the occasional human passerby? One could be forgiven for believing so, but an organization called the Japanese Wolf Alliance (JWA) aims to bring them back, most likely through importing closely-related Russian wolves, in part because the sika deer population in Hokkaido island alone has reached over a half a million and is devastating the natural balance of the ecosystem. Not even the mighty resident brown bears can do anything about the exploding sika population, which is causing tens of millions of dollars in damage to agriculture and the environment. The wolves have to come back to restore the balance.

Brett L. Walker, author of the highly readable The Lost Wolves of Japan, explains what happened to Japan’s wolves and why they were exterminated (when they were once worshipped) in a campaign of eradication: “Even though Japanese worshiped wolves, they also killed them, particularly after the spread of rabies in the 18th century. In a bizarre episode unique to global wolf history, in the 18th century wolves became rabid man-killers in many parts of Japan, and wolf hunts, designed to cleanse the landscape of what many Japanese saw as demons, often looked more like ceremonies than hunts…..Even as wolves killed and ate Japanese travelers in the 18th century, most Japanese still viewed wolves as deities who lived in an otherworldly space of mountains and forests, and for this reason they ceremoniously killed these demons or offered prayers to competing deities, such as the “pasture deity” (makigami), hoping to protect livestock from wolf predation.” And for human safety, one would imagine.

This is a far cry from the Japan of today, with its bullet trains and cosplay and internet-addicted hikikomori, or people who deliberately shut themselves away from society, but wolves once ranged from northernmost Hokkaido Island all the way down to Kyushu Island—the southernmost of the “big four” Japanese islands.

The ecological benefits to the reintroduction of wolves to America’s Yellowstone National Park have been well-documented, but where exactly would new wolves for Japan come from? According to Dan Zukowski, they would be captured from the wild in northeast Asia, where their numbers are already low: “A separate species, the Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax), survived until 1905. A recent DNA study published in Science found that it was more closely related to an ancient species that lived in Siberia until about 20,000 years ago than to modern grey wolves. Nambu has suggested that wolves from Mongolia (above) or China would be the most appropriate candidate to bring to Japan forests. Neither are abundant. The most recent estimate of 10,000 wolves in Mongolia dates to 2004 and showed a sharp decline from 30,000 in 1980. Wolf pelts, teeth, skulls, and paws are readily found in Chinese shops along the Mongolian border, according to a 2009 European Commission report.”

The now near-extinct and/or completely assimilated Ainu indigenous people of Japan got along fine with wolves, but can modern Japanese do the same? It is one thing to have monkeys soaking in hot springs for tourists to photograph, but quite another for humans to live among large predators. Yet the idea of reintroducing wolves to Japan remains enticing, and in fact this highly industrialized nation boasts an impressive array of wildlife, including the Iriomote Cat (listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered) on Iriomote island in the Ryukyu archipelago between Kyushu and Taiwan, the now high-threatened dugong of Okinawa (threatened due to US military projects in the area), sea turtles, and a special form of red coral much sought after by the Chinese (which brings on Chinese poaching vessels), among many other forms of wildlife.

Of course, Japan also recently decided to resume commercial whaling, the country smuggles in large quantities of wild-caught otters from other countries for the domestic pet trade, and the mass slaughter of dolphins in “The Cove” of Taiji in northeastern Japan is nothing short of horrific. And yet, the fact that there is a movement on to bring wolves back from extinction (albeit another sub-species from Mainland Asia) is proof that there is a fairly substantial number of Japanese who care deeply about their nation’s rich natural heritage—enough so to live with man-eating predators, once again.

If the wolves do come back (are imported) the plan would likely be hatched in Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaido, where huge brown bears already roam, where spotted seals relax on floating ice blocks, and where sika deer run rampant. But who knows, if the reintroduction program moves forward and is successful, could wolves once howl in the night in the parallel universe of Japan’s majestic mountains that ring its dazzling cities? Time will tell, and this author sure hopes so.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel