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Bear shot dead in Japan after rampage through military base, airport injures four

A soldier at the barracks suffered cuts on his chest and stomach, but his injury was not life threatening, according to Japan's Defense Ministry.
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A wild brown bear wreaked havoc in northern Japan on Friday, capturing the nation's attention during an eight-hour rampage that was streamed online and broadcast on national news bulletins.

The bear transfixed viewers as it roamed through residential streets, forced its way onto a military base and disrupted flights at a small airport — injuring four people before eventually being shot dead.

The frenzied hunt prompted government warnings for residents to stay inside as the bear trampled through the northern city of Sapporo, which is due to host some Olympic events later this summer.

Images of the animal went viral on social media as people tuned in to livestreams, watching the bear mosey past homes on a narrow street, climb a barbed-wire fence and disrupt traffic as police hurriedly tried to capture it.

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A local resident first reported seeing a bear on the road in Sapporo before dawn on Friday, according to police. Multiple sightings were reported after that, police said, as the bear remained on the loose into the morning.

"If you find a bear, be careful to evacuate immediately," Hokkaido police warned.

Image: A brown bear that is on the loose in Sapporo, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan
Brown bears roam mainly in Hokkaido forests, but experts say they have been increasingly spotted in inhabited areas looking for food, especially during the summer.AFP - Getty Images

Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, urged residents to stay home and be alert during a news conference on Friday.

He told reporters the bear had entered one of Japan's self-defense force military barracks in the city and confirmed that at least four people had suffered injuries following the bear's rampage.

"We pay our condolences to the people affected in the Sapporo city," he said.

Video footage showed the bear knocking down a uniformed soldier at the gate of the barracks before running through the camp and intruding onto the runway at a nearby airport. Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported that flights were briefly halted, while some local schools also reportedly closed.

The soldier suffered cuts on his chest and stomach, but his injury was not life threatening, according to Japan's Defense Ministry. The other three people injured by the rampage were a man in his 70s, a woman in her 80s, and a man in his 40s — but their conditions were not known, Hokkaido prefectural police said.

The bear then ran into a forest where it was eventually shot by a local hunting association working in collaboration with the police — ending the eight-hour bear chase.

"The brown bear that had infested the eastern ward was terminated," the Sapporo City public relations department tweeted.

Local police also said on Twitter that the bear had been "exterminated," and images of officials wrapping the animal in a blue sheet were shared online.

Image:  A brown bear that is on the loose in Sapporo, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan on June 18, 2021.
A local official said authorities were investigating how the animal ended up in the city.

Its death prompted a public debate about animal rights and whether the bear should have been tranquilized instead, Jeffrey Hall, an American who has lived in Japan for 16 years and followed the live hunt online told NBC News.

"It was a major media story because there were people able to take footage of it," Hall said, noting that normally bear sightings were common in rural areas and passed unnoticed, rather than in a big city home to some two million people.

"This is not a normal thing," he added, speaking by telephone from Chiba near the capital Tokyo.

Hall, who is a lecturer at Japan's Kanda University focusing on international communications and pop culture, said thousands like him tuned in online to keep up with the chase and comment on social media.

He noted that for those living in "bear-adjacent areas" the animals were widely viewed as a "dangerous pest" but that ultimately humans still posed the greater threat.

"It's much more dangerous for the bears than the people," he said. "The bears are the ones who are gonna be shot."

This is not the first time bears have posed a threat in northern Japan.

Last year, residents of the town of Takikawa — also on the northern island of Hokkaido — took desperate measures, deploying robot wolves in an attempt to scare away bears that they said had become an increasingly dangerous nuisance in the countryside.

The Yezo brown bear is an iconic part of Hokkaido's wildlife, according to a local government tourism site, and is revered in the indigenous Ainu culture where the animals are worshiped as gods and relied on for fur and meat.

It is native to Japan along with the Asian black bear.

The Japan Bear and Forest Society said that a shortage of food, such as acorns and salmon, along with ageing and depopulating villages in the countryside were making bears venture closer to human habitation.

The animal rights body warned that bears could face extinction if they were routinely caught and killed, instead urging society to find a way to better "coexist."

Adela Suliman reported from London, and Christina Ching Yin Chan reported from Hong Kong.