Kai the bear had spent practically all of his 17 years on Earth confined to a tiny cage inside a museum. However, when a group of tourists noticed his plight, they embarked on a mission to set him and three other bears free.
Ussuri brown bears are very rare. The large predators can be found in the Korean Peninsula, some of Russia’s easternmost islands, the north-east of China and Northern Japan. However, the animals are considered endangered in most of these areas.
Threats facing the Ussuri brown bear include illegal hunting, capture, loss of habitat and poaching. As a result, the animals have become extinct in some parts of Asia – including in South Korea. And to make matters worse, the species’ future in Japan looks far from certain.
In fact, there are estimated to be only 10,000 Ussuri brown bears remaining in Japan. To highlight the animals’ plight, the International Union for Conservation of Nature includes them on its Red List of Threatened Species. They are also named as endangered in Japan’s Red Data Book.
However, efforts to protect the Ussuri brown bear came too late for many of the animals – including four on Japan’s most northerly island, Hokkaido. The bears – Kai, Amu, Riku and Hanako – were brought into captivity after having been snatched from the wild as cubs.
Then the quartet of bears grew up at the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, where they made up a segment of a so-called living feature. As part of the exhibition, they were each kept in cramped six-foot-by-nine-foot cages; the enclosures were so small that the animals were unable to take any more than a few steps.
By anyone’s standards, it was a sorry existence. And the experience had obviously taken its toll on all of the animals, who would pace their cages unhappily. Brothers Riku and Kai would even vomit after meal times.
When some tourists came across the bears in early 2017, though, the conditions facing the animals left them horrified. In fact, they were so disturbed that they reached out to Wild Welfare – a U.K.-based charity that works with captive animals to give them the care that they need.
When the staff at Wild Welfare heard about Kai, Amu, Riku and Hanako, moreover, they contacted the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum to offer their help. And luckily for the bears, the overture was accepted, meaning Wild Welfare could begin making plans to move the animals.
In an interview with the Daily Mail in August 2018, Georgina Groves from Wild Welfare revealed, “The museum wanted the bears rehomed. They didn’t have the facilities.” But, she added, “Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anywhere in Japan that would take them.”
Wild Welfare didn’t give up on the animals, however; instead, the organization began looking further afield for a new location for the bears. That’s how the charity came to contact Doncaster, England’s Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP), which is known for the good work it does rehabilitating wild animals.
Thankfully, the staff at YWP agreed to take on the four bears. Speaking after the news was confirmed in July 2018, John Minion, head of the park, told The Independent, “We are looking forward to welcoming [Kai, Amu, Riku and Hanako].”
Minion continued, “We are fortunate we have the space, animal management skills and experience to rehome these bears that will require specialist care.” He added, “We are grateful to the Ainu Museum for releasing the bears to us here where we will be able to give them a secure and nurturing future.”
Now all that stood between the bears and their forever home was an epic 5,400-mile journey. The passage would cost £150,000 ($195,000) and involve a specially air-conditioned truck as well as a long-haul flight between Tokyo and London.
Meanwhile, five vets supported the bears during their journey. Their job was made especially tricky by the searing heat; when the animals were first moved, the temperature was 97°F. However, the team’s efforts paid off. By the time the bears reached Yorkshire, they were exhausted but otherwise okay.
But while the animals’ arduous trip may have been over, their adventures were really just beginning. At YWP they were greeted by luxurious dens stockpiled with all kinds of edible goodies such as fruit, eggs, and yogurt. But for some of the bears, their new home proved to be quite overwhelming.
Given that they had spent longer in captivity, Amu and Hanako would need more time to acclimatize to their new surroundings. So, Kai and his brother Riku were given the first opportunity to explore the purpose-built environment.
Once the animals’ cage was opened, it was Kai who took the first tentative steps. And his reaction to being able to wander for the first time in 17 years was heartwarming. After a nervous few seconds, the bear made a beeline for a donated toy and claimed it as his own by taking it back to his den.
But Kai didn’t stay cooped up for long. Soon enough, he emerged from his den once more – and this time he dived into the lake for a swim. Throughout his life, the bear had mostly only seen the shallow puddles of water that would collect in his cage.
So, thanks to YWP, Kai and his buddies finally got their happy endings. And Groves is hopeful that their story may help other captive animals find better lives, too. “We really hope these four beautiful bears can raise the profile for others and help us work with zoo and welfare organizations to secure a better long-term future for [all bears in captivity],” she told BBC News in August 2018.