Bear facts: why our furry beasts are endangered

Six of the world's eight ursine species are now under threat. Sophie Morris reports on efforts to save our bears
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The Independent Online

As he ambles across the lush forest canopy that he calls home, there is no doubt the sun bear's mind is far from this week's headlines predicting his extinction. He is the most reclusive of the world's eight species of bear and the smallest, too, standing at just over one metre tall and weighing less than 65kg. This makes it easy for him to negotiate the rainforests of south-east Asia and shin up trees, gripping with his sickle-shaped claws as he searches out lizards and berries.

His black hair is unusually short and sleek for a bear and a golden crescent of fur hangs around his neck, the distinctive marking that gives him his name. Owing to his predilection for pausing by bees' nests and using his long tongue to extract the sweet honey, he is also sometimes known as the honey bear.

Other than this, little is known about the sun bear. Until this year, he was classified as "data deficient" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' (IUCN) "Red List", which categorises endangered species according to how close they are to extinction. The sun bear is now listed as a vulnerable species and its addition means six species of bear are considered endangered in some way. The IUCN estimates sun bear numbers have decreased by 30 per cent in the past three decades, which is three generations in bear years. "Although we have a lot to learn about the biology and ecology of this species, we are certain it is in trouble," said the co-chairman of the IUCN's bear specialist group Rob Steinmetz, a leading expert on sun bears.

Man is the sun bear's only known predator. If logging companies are not carving up its habitat with chainsaws, poachers may be catching the bears to cage and milk for their bile, a natural anti-inflammatory, or their paws, which are used to make soup. Bear experts had hoped the solitary nature of sun bears and their dense forest habitat would keep them safe from humans.

Western Europe and North America are two areas where human and industrial development has railroaded over bear populations and they are both striking examples of the inherent problems of bears and humans peacefully coexisting. Even though these areas are home to the two species not considered at risk, the American black bear and the brown bear, or grizzly, in many areas their numbers are patchy. Whereas brown bears used to roam from Alaska to central Mexico, Nevada's Yellowstone Park is now home to the southern-most group of brown bears. The 2005 film Grizzly Man told the story of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, whose attempts to coexist with grizzlies in Alaska ended when he and his partner were eaten by one.

There are very few bears in Western continental Europe, but significant numbers in more remote areas of Scandinavia and eastern Europe. In Europe and America, the bears are out of risk because of tight controls on hunting, but there have also been efforts to reintroduce them where they have died out, with mixed success. "Slovenia has a large bear population," explains David Garshelis, also a co-chair of the IUCN's Bear Specialist Group, "and a group of bears was moved from there to the Alps. One ended up in Germany and was shot. Another got into a lot of trouble in Switzerland and there was talk of shooting it."

"Bruno" was the first bear to be sighted in Germany in 170 years and was shot last summer, considered a "problem bear" after ransacking farms and scaring people. "Humans and bears should be able to coexist but there are always special cases like Bruno," explains Garshelis. "He was very unusual. The problem is not that one bear gets shot but that people end up thinking of bears in those terms, imagining all brown bears are like Bruno." Moving bears is a last resort, but when the numbers of bears fall very low or they disappear there is no other option. Successful projects have trapped bears in Minnesota, where Garshelis is based, and which has healthy bear stocks, to start populations in Louisiana and Arkansas.

Another approach is that of Charlie Russell, an American ex-rancher in his mid-sixties who has been fascinated by bears for most of his life. Contrary to the ferocious, aggressive image most people have of the bear, compounded by Bruno's behaviour in Germany and the Timothy Treadwell story, Russell says he has always thought of them as "peaceful and playful".

His ideas for bringing humans and bears closer together were widely rejected in the US, so he moved to the far eastern tip of Russia 13 years ago and set about living side by side with them. He was keen to show that grizzlies were neither inherently dangerous nor unpredictable, and his results are impressive: he rears orphan cubs until they leave for the wild and babysits cubs for one female bear while she hunts.

Another project has been relocating orphaned Asiatic black bear cubs from Russia to South Korea, where numbers were below 20. "This project is one of the best examples of repopulation and makes use of what was a bad situation," says Garshelis. "Hunters, mainly poachers, would sell a bear and its paws and gall bladder and then try to sell the cubs as pets. They are often confiscated by the government and nobody knows what to do with them. South Korea has been releasing them into the wild for the past three years. They've done this with 26 bears now and are hoping to get the population up to over 50."

Whether similar efforts can be undertaken to protect the sun bear is unclear, as Garshelis links the rate of deforestation in its natural habitat – an area the size of 300 football pitches is razed every hour – to the US's growing demand for biofuels. Until that shows any sign of abating, it is unlikely the forest-clearing fervour will either.

American Black Bear least concern

Ursus americanus

Where: Canada, the United States and Mexico.

How many: Numbers have grown over the past two decades. Estimates suggest 850,000 to 950,000.

Conservation measures: Crackdowns on hunting across the US and Mexico have had some success, as has the establishment of national parks. Bears have been reintroduced from different areas of the continent.

Giant Panda endangered

Ailuropoda melanoleuca

Where: Confined to south-central China.

How many: 1,000 to 2,000 in the wild.

Conservation measures: Accorded China's maximum level of protection. Poaching is controlled, but habitat needs restoring. The reintroduction of animals to wild is limited by lack of release sites.

Brown (Grizzly) Bear least concern

Ursus arctos

Where: Across the US, Canada, Europe and much of northern Asia, with the largest numbers in Russia, Alaska and Canada.

How many: More than 200,000.

Conservation measures: There are large populations in Russia, Japan, Canada and Alaska and parts of Eastern Europe. The bears are legally hunted. Most small populations are protected by conservation laws. Numbers have increased in several locations in the US and Western Europe thanks to reintroductions. Brown bear preservation needs to be integrated in areas where humans are presently using the land.

Polar Bear vulnerable

Ursus maritimus

Where: Strictly speaking a semi-aquatic marine mammal, polar bears are native to the Arctic.

How many: 20,000 to 25,000. It is predicted that their numbers will reduce by 30 per cent over the next 45 years, as the polar sea ice melts.

Conservation measures: Polar bear numbers increased in the second half of the 20th century, but their habitat is being destroyed by global warming.

Andean Bear vulnerable

Tremarctos ornatus

Where: The Andes, from the border of Panama and Colombia as far south as northern Argentina.

How many: Fewer than 20,000, ranging from 3,000 to 7,000 in Colombia to under 400 in Argentina.

Conservation measures: A decade ago less than 20 per cent of their habitat was legally protected and too few steps have been taken to enlarge parks or create new ones since. Legal loopholes make it possible to kill or remove bears from the wild and management plans are necessary to reduce conflicts between bears and cattle.

Asiatic Black Bear vulnerable

Ursus thibetanus

Where: A narrow band through Asia from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan across the foothills of the Himalayas to Burma.

How many: No reliable figures. Japan suggests 8,000 to 14,000, Russia 5,000 to 6,000, India 7,000 to 9,000, Pakistan 1,000 and China 15,000 to 46,000.

Conservation measures: Reducing demand for bear products, and thus hunting, would have a substantial impact on populations. They are protected under international law, though in Japan and Russia sport hunting is legal.

Sun Bear vulnerable

Helarctos malayanus

Where: Mainland south-east Asia, as far west as Bangladesh and India and north to southern China.

How many: No accurate figures.

Conservation measures: Although protected across their habitat, the laws are rarely enforced. A reduction in logging and trade in bear parts would be beneficial. The IUCN's Bear Specialist Group has mapped blocks where anti-poaching efforts should be prioritised to protect numbers.

Sloth Bear vulnerable

Melursus ursinus

Where: India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan.

How many: Estimates vary widely from 10,000 to 20,000.

Conservation measures: Sloth bears are protected in Indian wildlife protection law and exist there in 174 protected areas, but in other countries they can be killed to protect life or property.