Fukushima: A Wild Conundrum

By: Yosef Scher  |  August 25, 2021

By Yosef Scher 

On March 11, 2011, Japan was struck with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake––the largest earthquake in Japan in over 1,000 years. The earthquake had catastrophic consequences; it destroyed entire towns, cost Japan $235 billion in damages, and resulted in more than 18,000 tragic deaths. Possibly the most significant of the damage, however, was caused by the three nuclear meltdowns of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which released a substantial amount of radioactive material into Fukushima and the neighboring towns. As a result, the Japanese government created a twenty-kilometer evacuation zone, forcing over 150,000 people to evacuate their homes. This led Fukushima and many towns in the vicinity to become ghost towns––or so the Japanese thought.

While the area became depopulated, domestic pigs and wild boars began to inhabit the abandoned territory. Donovan Anderson, a researcher at Fukushima University who has been studying the wild boar population ever since the nuclear meltdown occurred, explained to a reporter that “[o]nce people were gone, the boar[s] took over.” Specifically, Donovan directed a genetic study of the wild boar and domestic pigs to understand how these creatures could thrive so well in this unusual environment. He discovered something peculiar after analyzing DNA samples: pig-boar hybrids. In a seemingly almost perfect example of a “Darwinian natural selection test tube,” the domestic pigs began to breed with the wild boars due to inadequate food supply. Over several years following this event, researchers have found that the “domestic pig genes have gradually been ‘diluted’ over time.” The scientific community continues to marvel at this strange occurrence.

Scientists are curious to see what will happen to the animals once people are allowed to return to the previously restricted area. In 2018, the Japanese government told the public that some of the affected areas could become repopulated. However, in addition to their fear of returning to a place that was contaminated with high levels of radiation, “residents have voiced [their] concerns about the dangers of encountering wild boars in their streets and backyards.” After living in these towns for almost a decade, these wild boar and pig-boar hybrids are reluctant to give up their territory. According to those who returned to the towns, the animals they encountered did not seem to be phased by them. Furthermore, some of these animals may have high radiation levels inside of them because of the contaminated water that they drank. In fact, “[a]ccording to some tests conducted by the Japanese government, some of the boars have shown levels of radioactive element cesium-137 that are 300 times higher than safety standards.” This has elevated the level of fear in many of the residents. 

A select few, however, such as Shoichiro Sakamoto, are trying to solve this issue by reducing the wild boar and pig-boar hybrid populations by hunting them. Sakamoto, and other brave individuals, have decided to build traps to capture the animals so that the hunters will have an easier time. In a New York Times article, writer Kimiko de Fraytas-Tamura reported that “in the three years since 2014, the number of boars killed in hunts has grown to 13,000 from 3,000.” Even though the population of these animals has significantly decreased, Japanese residents are still hesitant to return to their previous homes. Time will tell whether the residents and the boars will be able to coexist. 

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