[VIEWPOINT]Interplay of man and natureThe monsoon season ended earlier than expected this year. All the peaks and valleys of Mount Jiri National Park are so green with trees that have been refreshed with water. I think it is especially hot this summer. Even the bear restoration office situated at the foot of Hwa-eom valley on Mount Jiri could not avoid the heat in the daytime.
The three experimental bears, called the general, the crescent and the youngest, that live in the paddock next to our office just lean against the trees and sleep all day because of exhaustion from the heat. They are scheduled to move from the 50 pyong (165 square meters) paddock to an 800 pyong forest area, created for the purpose of providing education on nature for visitors, where the bears will be able to live freely. But it looks like they are not bothering to do anything now, and all they do is glance at people who come to watch them.
Korea is covered with mountains over more than 70 percent of its land, and so our people have a special affection for the mountains. This passion can be seen in the fact that more than 3 million people visit Mount Jiri each year. Since July 15, when the peak season starts, many people have been coming to Mount Jiri to enjoy the natural surroundings. Thousands of people climb Nogodan, the easiest peak to reach, every day.
As a part of the Crescent Chest Bear Restoration Project, 14 bears have been sent back to the wild life to date. Eight bears from North Korea that were released on July 1 are busy enjoying their life in the woods within a 3 kilometer radius of the point where they were released. The bears from the maritime provinces of Russia that were released in the wild on Oct. 15 last year have expanded their range of activity in search of food and habitat, and are now living in mountains more than 7 kilometers away in a straight line from the point where they were released. And around this time next year, each will choose its own habitat area and settle down there for the rest of its life.
Bears do not know much about people. Rather, there is no way for them to come to know about people, because bears cannot meet people unless people visit places where they are on purpose. However, things are different at Mount Jiri National Park. Mount Jiri has many different nature trail courses for a safe and enjoyable walk. Also, there are shelters at major ridges and valleys, where people can take shelter for their safety or stay overnight. As the bears expand their area of activity, they will naturally appear on the trails, wander around the area where the shelters are and cross the roads that go through the national park. The contacts between visitors and the bears are unavoidable.
Most bears do not care about people. There are times when bears approach people out of cautiousness and curiosity to find out who these animals called human beings are. Once their curiosity is somewhat satisfied and they judge that it is not dangerous to live with people, they act naturally even within a 7-meter distance from people feeding their babies or looking for food.
The bears do not have a problem, but people do. Recently, a tragic incident took place at Japan’s Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaido where 1.5 million people visit every year to see bears. A young wild bear ate a sausage that a visitor thoughtlessly threw to him and then came down all the way to a village and was killed. It is a sad incident in which an act out of love for animals ended in the poor death of an animal.
Something we worried about happened at Mount Jiri too. A female bear from the maritime provinces of Russia, called Chilseon, had to be sent back to the paddock. Despite our effort to return her to the wild, she had frequented the area near the visitors’ shelter and adhered to the food visitors gave her.
Mount Jiri is one of the few areas left in our country where our bears can return to the wild. Bears are the owners of Mount Jiri and people are the guests. It is also the only place in Korea where people have a chance to see bears living in nature, thanks to the Crescent Chest Bear Restoration Project. It is desperately needed for people to change their perceptions of nature and wild animals, so that bears can live in nature.
*The writer is the head of the department for the restoration of crescent chest bears at the Korea National Parks Authority. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Han Sang-hoon