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Shiretoko: Of the Japanese wild

Life on land

“Shiretoko National Park is famous for its population of Brown Bears, it has the highest density population of Brown Bears on earth”.

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

October 9, 2022

North-east Hokkaido and the mountainous Shiretoko Peninsula stretches out in front of us, dividing the Sea of Okhotsk to its north and the Nemuro Straits to its south. This is the wildest of all Japan.

Blakiston Line

Thomas Blakiston, yet another British naturalist to discover a species related geographical boundary, noted that the species on the Japanese island of Honshu were different from the species present in Hokkaido. The species found on Hokkaido belonging to the group of northern Asian species. The relatively narrow Tsugaru Strait divides Hokkaido and Honshu and the zoogeographical boundary between the two islands is called the Blakiston Line. The Blakiston Line is less well known than Southeast Asia’s Wallace Line, but the principles are similar.

The Shiretoko Peninsula

The Shiretoko Peninsula stretches for around 70 kilometers and is roughly 25 kilometers in width. The whole area is around one thousand square kilometers of mostly Japanese wild. Central to the peninsula is its mountain range reaching up to around 1500 metres. The extensive coastal zone features rugged cliffs and steep slopes.

The ecology of the Shiretoko Peninsula is very similar to that of the Kuril Archipelago stretching northward. Here the region has its political boundaries and ongoing disputes between Russia and Japan. In 2005 UNESCO designated the area as a world heritage site because of its outstanding significance.

Shiretoko became a national park in 1964 and in 1980 part of the park (in the vicinity of Mount Onnebetsu) was rezoned as a wilderness area, the new zoning giving the park greater protection from development. The area around Mount Onnebetsu inscribed as a Natural World Heritage in 2005 covers just under 500 square kilometers plus an additional area of sea covering around 220 square kilometers.

As we wander the pathways in this intense world of greenness near the park's nature centre, we keep a watchful eye out for wildlife. There are 35 mammal species here and 256 bird species have been recorded. The vegetation includes grasslands, ferns and Painted Maple and mixed forests in the interior formed by Japanese Oak and Japanese Yew. On higher slopes Erman’s Birch and higher still Japanese Stone Pine mixed with alpine meadows. In winter, sea ice flows play a role in maintaining the biodiversity of the region because the ice is accompanied by significant amounts of plankton, which in turn attract large numbers of fish, birds and marine mammals.

Life on the peninsula

It is not surprising that the Shiretoko Peninsula provides a home for endangered species which include Stellar’s Sea Eagle and Blakiston’s Fish-owl. Shiretoko National Park is famous for its population of Brown Bears, it has the highest density population of Brown Bears on earth.


There is ongoing discussion regarding the reintroduction of wolves to the Shiretoko Peninsula.The management plan for the park is to re-establish the ‘lost components’ of the region and to let natural processes run their course. There have been increases in the population of Yezo Sika Deer.

The Shiretoko Peninsula has also been home to human populations over a long period dating back at least 8,000 years to the early Jomon Period. The Ainu were also present on the peninsula and most place names are from the Ainu. Their culture had its close relationship with the natural world and that cultural ability to co-exist with nature is one that we should all think about very carefully.