Ussuri Brown Bears Riku, Kai, Hanako and Amu were destined to live out their days in cramped, outdated cages at the Ainu Cultural Museum on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, until they came to the attention of the charity Wild Welfare. There was no room for them in Japanese zoos, but thankfully, Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) stepped in to provide the bears with a much-needed new home.
Chosen because of its experience in conservation of at-risk species and dedicated carnivore rehabilitation reserve, Yorkshire Wildlife Park can provide the space, animal management skills and specialist care that these animals need.
Transporting four large, unpredictable bears over 5,400 miles is no small undertaking, but Yorkshire Wildlife Park Animal Manager Debbie Porter says, ‘it went like clockwork’. With YWP staff and local experts working together, it took nearly seven hours to gently tempt the bears out of their cages and into specially constructed transport crates for the journey.
‘The 27-year-old female Hanako was very playful when we were loading her,’ says Debbie. ‘At one point she tried to grab a hose pipe! She was very curious about what was going on.’
‘It was a very emotional day. Everyone was really pleased to be part of something so big. I took some photos of the empty cages because, for 27 years, they had been in that tiny caging.’
Travelling in temperature-controlled conditions, the animals were flown to Tokyo and from there to London. Safe in the UK, the bears were carefully checked over, before beginning the final stage of their journey to Doncaster by road. Almost two days after setting off from Japan, the bears finally arrived at Yorkshire Wildlife Park. In an emotional moment for all concerned, the slides of their crates were lifted, and the bears took their first steps into their new home.
‘Hanako was the first to leave her crate,’ says Debbie. ‘She was quickly out, dived for her food, splashed in her water trough and rolled triumphantly in the deep straw bed, before throwing the straw around.’
The two younger bears Kai and Riku were next to come out. ‘Kai joined Riku in adjacent parts of the house, separated by mesh as they had been in Japan,’ says Debbie. ‘Riku chuffed excited noises to Kai as they were reunited.’
The bears were clearly enthusiastic about their new environment, but it took some time for them to build the confidence to explore it fully.
‘All of the bears were very cautious in leaving the safety of the yard and house,’ explains Debbie. ‘They were hesitant about the larger enclosure, nipping out to collect toys and taking them straight back into the security of a smaller, more familiar-sized area.
‘After a few days they became more confident and started to explore, swim and dig for grubs and insects.’
Sadly, the oldest bear, Amu, had been suffering from chronic degenerative illnesses for some time. Working round the clock with veterinary experts, the YWP team did their utmost to improve Amu’s health as he settled in to his new home, but ultimately made the difficult decision to put him to sleep.
While they feel the loss of Amu deeply, the team at Yorkshire Wildlife Park are delighted with the progress his companions are making.
‘Hanako is doing incredibly well and settled in beautifully,’ says Debbie. ‘She has a huge, sassy personality and has become a real favourite with the team. She is now showing great natural bear behaviours, which we are thrilled to see. She thoroughly enjoys bathing in her plunge pool (not having had access to bathing water, previously) and spends time playing with puzzles and toys. Hanako was a confident girl in Japan, but she now oozes character and loves attention.’
Brothers Riku and Kai are also revealing more of their characters as they relax into their environment. ‘Initially, Kai was the more confident of the brothers,’ Debbie explains, ‘but now Riku is the braver, more outgoing bear. They are often seen together swimming, playing or snuggled up together.’
The bears’ health is also flourishing. ‘All three bears are now on a balanced diet,’ says Debbie. ‘Their body shape is continually changing, and they are now building muscle through their increased movement, but this will take time.
‘They still have a way to go,’ Debbie continues, ‘but they are so much more agile, and stronger both mentally and physically. They are responding very well to our training programme and we have three very happy and content bears.’
Watch the magical moment when the bears first arrived and were released here. You can also follow the bears’ progress on YWP’s facebook and twitter: @yorkshireWP
c.Yorkshire Wildlife Park