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An urgent need to reduce and regulate badger culling in Kagoshima

An urgent need to reduce and regulate badger culling in Kagoshima     

Dr Yayoi Kaneko (Carnivore Ecology and Research Group, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology) , Dr Chris Newman (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford) , Dr Christina Buesching (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford)

It is always difficult to formulate an opinion on how best to deal with a wildlife conservation crisis when data are incomplete. Nevertheless, it is sometimes imperative to do so to avert an animal welfare catastrophe. Currently, the Japanese news media are reporting that around 4000 badgers have been exterminated over the last year (2016) in Kagoshima prefecture (9,188 km2)(Fig1 and 2), an administrative region on the southern part of Kyushu island. Allegedly, this is in response to an increase inagricultural damage attributed to badgers (e.g., crop theft, entering cattle barns and invading to residential homes), although badgers have co-existed with farming in this region for centuries. Until 2009, only around 200 badgers were culled under licence from the local prefectural government. However, this increased rapidly since 2010 to over 4000 in 2016, despite no evidence of any dramatic increase in badger numbers in the area, or any additional nuisance behaviour.

Clearly, this unsustainable culling presents a real and substantial risk to the conservation of badgers in this region, with a potential for cascade effects across the ecosystem. In parallel, however, there is also an emergent and troubling ethical issue, where these dead badgers are being sold as meat at local markets, and even making their way to Tokyo restaurants, to be served as a delicacy. Although villagers in Kyushu have eaten badgers back into antiquity, this practice had largely died out in Japan until this resurgence; not least, eating badgers can present serious health risks from parasitic diseases.

With these concerns in mind, we propose several urgent recommendations to the Kagoshima prefectural government and all related wildlife institutions in the Kyushu area.

Recommendation 1: It must be justified that this culling is necessary and legal

The Japanese badger is endemic and unique to Japan. A fundamental precept to laws governing wildlife management and protection in Japan (and thus applying to Kagoshima) is that: “a native species must not be extirpated from any region of Japanby any kind of culling program”. It is thus beholden upon authorities in the Kagoshima prefecture to make every reasonable attempt to solve the nuisance problems, and to protect agriculture, without killing badgers. This requires proof that badgers are actually causing crop damage and the true economic extent of this crop damage must be calculated.

Recommendation 2.A badger population survey is urgently required in the Kagoshima prefecture and surrounding region to provide a baseline against which culling can be assessed.

A robust estimate of badger population density in the region is needed urgently – else it is equally impossible to evaluate if culling is making any impact on badgers. The Japanese badger (Meles anakuma) produces just one litter per year, typically of 1-2 cubs. Consequently, badger populations are very easily depressed and it can take several generations for populations to recover. This current dramatic increase in annual badger culling from ca. 200 to over 4000 individuals last 5 years (over 8000 badgers were culled in recent 5 years in Kagoshima prefecture which indicate around 40% of culled number in Kyushu island, 30% of total hunted number at all inhabiting areas in Japan) will thus likely decimate Kagoshima’s badger population, and severely disrupt the natural ecosystem. Robust population size data will allow more effective and ethical solutions may be explored, based on “sustainable use” theory.

Recommendation 3: It is essential to establish if just badgers being killed, or if all similar meso-carnivores in this region are being culled

Are all of the animals being culled actually badgers (Meles anakuma), or does culling extend to other animals sharing a similar ecological niche, which are sometimes all simply referred to generically as ‘anakuma’ by people unfamiliar with their distinct biology? If it is the latter, then the entire meso-carnivore guild could be in peril in this region, including species such as raccoon dogs, raccoons and masked palm-civets.

Recommendation 4: The bounty system implemented to incentivise culling must be administered fairly and honestly.

A bounty of around GBP20 per badger is being paid to local hunters by the local government (such as city councils) to incentivise culling when they present evidence that badgers are killed. Sufficient proof that a badger has been killed include presentation of a tail, or upper jaw, or even just aphotograph of the dead badger. This system seems highly vulnerable to corruption, where unscrupulous hunters may be inflating their bills through taking multiple photos of the same individual badger posed differently.

Recommendation 5: Before badger carcasses can be sold at markets and used in meat products for human consumption, it is imperative to check for contagious diseases and ensure food safety standards.

Not only do Japanese badgers carry a variety of flea, louse and tick parasites that can infest people and property, more worrying is that they are host to a variety of parasitic worms that are communicable to people and can cause serious disease Badger meat has not been eaten in over 100 years in Japan, although it is still eaten in parts of South Korea – where it has been identified as a source of human Trichinella spiralis infection. This intestinal nematode causes ‘trichinosis’, with intestinal infection and swelling. Eventually larvae bore into the circulatory system and migrate around the human body, causing fever, pain and inflammation. If larvae enter the heart or brain, resulting mycocarditis or encephalitis can be fatal (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trichinella_spiralis).

Evidently then, exclusive Tokyo restaurants serving as exotic badger dishes as a delicacy to their customer (as reported by Japanese TV media) are actually exposing unsuspecting customers to unpleasant and dangerous diseases. Furthermore, this meat will not be preserved or prepared adequately for transport to Tokyo from rural markets, and so likely also spoils and grows bacteria. For comparison, in this last hunting season, there were reports of brown bear meat from Hokkaido, causing trichinosis food poisoning among patrons of a French-style restaurant in Tochigi (Honshu island) . As mentioned above, it is also likely raccoons and palm civets are being consumed as “badger meat”. Raccoon meat risks additional contagious parasites, such as infection with the life-threat nematode worm Baylisascaris procyonis. In the raccoons’ native range this nematode is known to cause blindness and brain tumors in people, as larvae migrate through the human body, ultimately causing death if untreated. This consumption of untreated wild carnivore meat thus violates Japanese food safety laws and risks public health, and we sincerely hope that the local people in Kagoshima have alternative sources of meat, without reverting to destitute practices.

Recommendation 6: Learn from international experience

In Europe, the European badger (Meles meles) also causes crop damage, and worse, it is implicated in the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) to dairy cattle. Nevertheless, this species is protected, and when management is permitted under government license, numbers culled are established in accord with clear population reduction objectives. In the UK, badger culling is an especially sensitive issue, in part because it has proven counter-productive to cull badgers, worsening rather than improving bTB transmission to cattle, and in part because culling attracts substantial public condemnation and is the source of major political debate. Certainly, culled badgers are never eaten – a practice that disappeared in Western Europe, even among rural farmers, over a century ago, as was the case in Japan until this resurgent trend. It should be anticipated that many other nations in the civilized world will think that the Kagoshima badger culling is unethical, and that eating badgers is repugnant.

This has resonance with international criticism over animal welfare standards in Japan linked to whaling andthe dolphin drive at Taichi, Wakayama prefecture. In short, this un-planned badger culling, and badger eating, is likely to bring Japan into international disrepute.