It’s sometimes easy to forget that seafood isn’t the only thing on the menu in Japan, an island nation surrounded by abundant waters that serve as a vital economic and cultural resource. After all, Japan’s most famous gastronomical export — aside from Almond Crush Pocky, of course — is ultra-fresh raw fish paired with vinegared riced and wrapped in seaweed.
Once considered taboo, pork emerged as a fairly ubiquitous culinary staple in mid-19th century Japan. Wild boar-based dishes such as Botan Nabe, or wild boar hotpot, is a particularly beloved delicacy in Japan's more sparsely populated, heavily forested mountainous regions where wild game is more of a dinner table fixture than grilled mackerel and salmon sashimi.
Now about those wild boars.
Hunting these destructive, voracious and often downright menacing animals (cute babies, though!) as a food source has long helped to keep Japan’s wild boar numbers in check. Like in Texas and large swaths of the southeastern United States, Japan struggles with a wild boar overpopulation problem — it’s quite literally the nature of this quickly reproducing beast. Hunting efforts in key areas have helped to prevent the Japanese countryside from becoming completely overrun herds of yama-kujira or "mountain whales." And in addition to hunters, diners are doing their part by frequenting wild boar-specializing dining establishments where ordering the daily special can help to prevent feral swine from, well, completely taking over. (I’ll stick with the pork katsu, thanks.)
Fukushima Prefecture, one of six prefectures in the mountainous northeastern region of Tōhoku, is just one area that’s long relied on the hunting of wild boars not only for sustenance but for a myriad other reasons including public safety. But ever since a catastrophic 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the region in 2011, the already significant number of wild boars in and around Fukushima Prefecture has spiraled out of control.
You see, immediately following three separate level 7 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a nearly 13 mile quarantine area — the Fukushima exclusion zone — around the radiation-leaking nuclear plant was established. Five years later, the countryside around the site remains completely abandoned, frozen in time. But the wild boars are still there, breeding like crazy with no human activity or natural predators to get in their way. And while boars are still very much being culled near the exclusion zone, they remain indefinitely off limits as a food source considering that they’ve been feasting off of toxic waste-contaminated mushrooms, roots and small animals around the poisoned accident site for the past several years. Basically, they’re no longer good eatin’ due to nuclear disaster.
Poisoned land, flourishing wildlife
This all said, while the wild boars of Fukushima Prefecture have been classified as radioactive, it’s not quite like that.
That is, they haven’t mutated to 20 times their normal size and they don’t glow. There’s just a lot more of them to contend with — an estimated growth of 3,000 to over 13,000 boars hunted from 2014 alone. Health-wise, the beasts appear to be unaffected by nuclear contamination. If anything, the wild boars of Fukushima are thriving much like the decidedly less malignant forms of wildlife that have flourished in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone which was established nearly 30 years ago to this day around the site of the world's deadliest and costliest nuclear power plant accident.
“That wildlife started increasing when humans abandoned the area in 1986 is not earth-shattering news,” radio-ecology expert Tom Hinton tells the Washington Post in reference to Chernobyl. “What’s surprising here was the life was able to increase even in an area that is among the most radioactively contaminated in the world.”
In recent years, swaths of eastern Germany located hundreds upon hundreds of miles away from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine have experienced a dramatic uptick in radioactive boar captures. The boars aren’t only thriving and rapidly reproducing … they’re moving. And quick.
Back in Japan, with a record number of wild boars, all unfit for human consumption, marauding around the Fukushima exclusion zone and beyond, local authorities are struggling to put in a dent in the multiplying numbers. Hunting efforts continue full-steam ahead but available space to bury the inedible animals is running out.
As reported by the Independent, three mass graves in the city of Nihonmatsu, each able to accommodate the remains of 600 wild boars, are nearing full capacity. There’s no public land left to dig additional graves. A sake brewing hub, Nihonmatsu is located nearly 50 miles northeast from Fukushima Daiichi.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to have to ask local people to give us their land to use,” explains boar hunter Tsuneo Saito. “The city doesn’t own land which isn’t occupied by houses.”
Some boar-overrun municipalities in Fukushima have taken a different approach to disposal. Beleaguered officials in the city of Soma, located directly north of the exclusion zone, have invested in a specialized, radioactive material-filtering incinerator. Cremating in lieu of burying the radioactive feral swine eliminates the need for mass graves. However, it's an expensive, laborious and low-volume process as only three animals, each potentially weighing upwards of 200 pounds, can be incinerated per day.
Local farms under siege
As noted by the Independent, the biggest quandary faced by local officials aside from a dearth of burial space is the seemingly unstoppable spread of wild boars outside of the exclusion zone, where radiation levels remain 300 times the safe limit for human exposure, into surrounding agricultural areas unaffected by the catastrophe. Here, the radioactive boars have devoured crops, ravaged valuable land and terrorized local citizens to the tune of 98 million yen or roughly $900,000. Area farmers, who have already been through hell, likely didn’t see this one coming at all: significant economic disruption five years after the disaster, all at the hands — or hooves, rather — of radioactive boars.
All and all, it’s a complicated situation. The return of wildlife to areas decimated by a large-scale nuclear meltdown can be encouraging, miraculous — a sign of Mother Nature’s resilience against manmade (via natural) disaster. It offers hope. But the dramatic proliferation of wild boars, which are hugely problematic even without radiation entering the equation, add a nightmarish element to this otherwise not-so-bleak picture of recovery and rebirth.
Outside of Fukushima, non-radioactive boars have been wreaking havoc, agricultural and otherwise, on Kakara, a tiny island in the Genkai Sea. Although it is believed that the beasts first swam (over a mile!) to the crop-heavy island over a decade ago from mainland Kyushu, it’s only in recent years that they’e grown to outnumber the human population, three-to-one. “People will be forced off the island if the current situation continues," one Kakara resident tells the BBC.
Via [The Independent], [Washington Post]