A mysterious howling marked the start of Hiroshi Yagi’s 40-year search for an animal that has not been seen in Japan for more than a century.
He has switched jobs, set up sophisticated monitoring equipment, climbed mountains and trekked through forests all in hopes of finding the Japanese wolf.
The Japanese wolf, described as having a sharp face and a curled tail tip, is an extinct species on the Japanese Red List of the Environment Ministry. It was hunted mercilessly by humans, fell victim to infectious diseases and saw its habitat wiped out by development.
“Through my searches, I have felt the sinfulness of humans,” said Yagi, 63.
His latest search came in the middle of December, after a friend said he heard a large animal breathing and stepping on vegetation in the Okuchichibu mountain area straddling the prefectures of Saitama and Yamanashi and Tokyo.
Yagi, who lives in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, walked on snowy mountain paths surrounded by cypresses and Japanese cedars. He said he found martens’ droppings and deer footprints, as well as traces of many other animals in the snow.
He spent 15 years setting up 20 infrared, motion-detecting cameras on tree trunks by mountain roads in the area. So far, the cameras have recorded Japanese serows, foxes and bears, but no Japanese wolves.
The Japanese wolf is still worshipped as a guardian god in some regions of Japan because they attacked deer and wild boars that were ruining farmland.
Until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the Japanese wolf inhabited wide areas of Japan’s mainland, as well as the Shikoku and Kyushu regions.
But the Meiji government regarded the Japanese wolf as a threat to livestock, and ordered its extermination, according to experts.
The last time a Japanese wolf was caught was in 1905 in Higashi-Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. There have been no confirmed sightings since then.
“The wolf became prey for the cultural enlightenment (of the Meiji Era),” said Naoki Maruyama, 69, a professor emeritus at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology and an animal preservation expert.
Yagi, who was born in Niigata Prefecture, was 19 when he heard an animal howling in a beech wood forest on Mount Naeba.
“The clear, long howling sounded like ‘owooooo,’” Yagi said. “I did not think it was a dog, and I wanted to meet the owner of that howling.”
In one of Yagi’s earlier searches in the Okuchichibu mountains, he found many shrines that honored the wolves, as well as climbers’ eyewitness accounts, documents and animal fur. He thought this was the place where he would find the Japanese wolf.
He has visited Okuchichibu at least once a month. He also worked for a sleeping bag manufacturer, an electric power company and a water company to earn funds for his searches.
In October 1996, while he was on his way home from a search in the Okuchichibu mountains, an animal that appeared to be a Japanese wolf popped out of a bush by a forest road. It was about 1 meter long and had a sharp face and sleek fur.
Yagi took pictures of the animal.
The Japanese wolf has 1-meter-long body and a 30-centimeter tail. But it was difficult to tell if the animal in Yagi’s pictures was a feral dog. Experts said the only way to identify the Japanese wolf is to observe its characteristic skull.
But Yagi’s photographs made headlines after a zootaxy expert said the animal “is possibly a surviving descendent of the Japanese wolf.” The animal was named Chichibu Yaken (Wild dog of Chichibu).
In 2010, Yagi established a nonprofit organization called “Wanted Canis hotophilax” with people who were interested in finding the wolf. Canis hotophilax is the scientific name of the Japanese wolf.
Around 10 reports, such as “I heard howling” and “I saw a similar animal,” reach the group every year.
“Most reports are like ‘it possibly is’ or ‘it might be,’ but if we ignored them we could never find the wolf,” Yagi said.
Sightings of the Japanese wolf have also been reported in Kyushu and the Kii mountain area.
When Yagi was wrapping up his search in Okuchichibu in December, he went to the area where he saw Chichibu Yaken in 1996, and walked around for five minutes in the cold. He only saw a raccoon dog.
There are two theories about the origin of the Japanese wolf. One says the Japanese wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf in Eurasia. The other one says it is an indigenous Japanese species.
The wolf has a mysterious charm, said Iwao Obara, 72, a former senior official of the National Museum of Nature and Science.
“The sharp face, which looks lonely, and the enigma of why this once-worshipped animal disappeared, are attracting people,” he said.
But Obara says he doubts the Japanese wolf still exists.
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