If asked to imagine deer in Japan, one’s mind may turn to thoughts of docile herbivores gently eating out of tourists’ hands in Nara. Less likely to come to mind are the unchecked herds of hulking 300-pound deer picking clean growing swaths of Japan’s forests and farmland. But that is increasingly the reality facing Japan, with deer responsible for millions of dollars in crop damage each year.
It is a situation retired professor Naoki Maruyama hopes to fix. The chairman of the Japan Wolf Association, Maruyama believes that the reintroduction of wolves—extinct in Japan for the better part of a century—can help curb the damage caused by deer and restore ecological balance to affected regions of the country.
Historically, owing to migration via land bridges from Asia and Russia, Japan was home to Ezo wolves—found on the northern island of Hokkaido—and Honshu wolves, which inhabited the three other main islands. Changing agricultural needs and fear of rabies in local communities, combined with aggressive hunting policies, gradually led to the extinction of the Ezo wolf in 1889 and Honshu wolf in 1905. Over the intervening century, the wolves’ former prey—deer and boar—flourished.
For Maruyama, the idea of reintroducing wolves first came to him in 1988, with the discovery of wild wolves in Poland’s Bieszczady National Park, where they had previously been wiped out by hunting in the 1960s. “As a researcher on the social ecology and conservation management of deer,” Maruyama wrote in an email, “I realized the importance of the existence of predator wolves.” His calls for the reintroduction of wolves in Japan were rebuffed, however, by the country’s ecological societies. Ultimately, “we gave up on appealing to the academy,” Maruyama continued, “and decided to appeal directly to the public.” And so the Japan Wolf Association was formed in 1993.