Asia’s forgotten bears | Panda Anku

The giant panda is an icon of China and therefore of the whole of Asia. It connects people’s emotions for both its endangered status and its undeniable cuteness factor — two things that are easily marketed when it comes to raising money for conservation.

There are actually five bears from Asia. All are at risk, but four of them are receiving little attention or funding. The panda population has increased (its status has been changed from endangered to less critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] Red List of Threatened Species), mainly because of the money that has gone into the Panda brand. “Money invested in such universally gratifying campaigns is also far more meaningful than campaigns for other bears,” said Kartick Satyanarayan, CEO and co-founder of Wildlife SOS, a wildlife conservation organization in India.

Other Asiatic bears – the Asiatic black bear, found from the Himalayas to East Asia; the sun bear that lives in Southeast Asia; the sloth bear, native to the Indian subcontinent; and the brown bear, found throughout Eurasia—are largely neglected in conservation efforts. Brown bears are critically endangered in some parts of Asia, while the other bears are all considered endangered according to the Red List above.

What conservation efforts are being made for these forgotten Asiatic bears?

Asiatic black bear

The Asiatic black bear, Asiatic black bear or Himalayan black bear | Photo: Wikimedia

This bear – which looks similar to the brown bear but has a slimmer build – has a reputation for being aggressive towards humans. Asiatic black bears inhabit the land band that stretches from southeastern Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan across the Himalayas to Myanmar. Other small groups of these black bears (also known as moon bears) live in China, North Korea, Taiwan and some small Japanese islands.

Illegal hunting of the Asiatic black bear’s body parts remains the greatest threat to its survival. The gallbladder, paws and skin are regularly harvested for traditional medicinal purposes. Deforestation is the next big factor threatening black bears.

WWF is working with wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic to stop illegal hunting. Logging, agriculture and urbanization are being combated by charities such as the World Land Trust, which aims to protect areas of suitable habitat large enough to preserve the bears’ typical geographic range, which is about 100 square kilometers.

Demand for bear products will be significantly reduced, reducing hunting and trade, the IUCN says as the most useful thing societies can do to protect black bears. Although this species is internationally protected, laws are not enforced in many countries where it is hunted.

Sloth Bears

A Sloth Bear in Sri Lanka | Photo: Wikimedia

Sloth bears are found in Sri Lanka, India, Bhutan and Nepal, mostly in lowland areas, according to Bear Conservation. There may still be bears in Bangladesh’s wet forests, but that is by no means certain. They inhabit both dry and moist deciduous forests and grasslands. Mostly nocturnal animals that live in warm enough climates that they don’t hibernate. Sloth bears are considered endangered with a declining population due to habitat loss and poaching. Their lifespan is usually 20 to 25 years.

Sloth bears are killed by farmers due to crop damage, by hunters looking for gallbladders for medicinal use, and also fall victim to deforestation. According to the Endangered Species Coalition, their status is declining due to habitat loss and degradation such as overharvesting of wood products such as lumber, fuelwood, fruit and honey, establishment of monoculture plantations, expansion of agricultural land, human settlements and roads.

Sloth bears are also poached when they are very young and sold to families who turn them into “dancing bears”. You will be pushed through
Pain and fear of dancing in the street to earn money for sloth bear owners to support their families.

While sloth bears are fully protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, they may be killed to protect life or property. They have a reputation for being aggressive towards people, so they don’t get much attention or funding. However, several charities (like World Animal Protection) are making efforts to end bear dancing.

sun bear

A sun bear in a wildlife habitat | Photo: Wikimedia

The sun bear is the rarest species of bear after the giant panda. They have long tongues – 20-25 cm – which they use to extract honey from beehives. This has earned them the alternative names “Honey Bear” or “Beruang Madu” in Malay and Indonesian. They are found in tropical lowland areas in Southeast Asia. They do not hibernate, but build nests in trees to sleep in at night.

According to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC), sun bears face three main threats. Like other bears, they suffer from habitat loss due to deforestation. They are also illegally hunted for their gall bladders and paws. In China and Vietnam, sun bears are milked for bile while they are alive.

Since sun bears are the smallest of all bear species, cubs are considered desirable and are in high demand as pets. Typically, a poacher kills the mother and her orphaned cub is removed from the wild and kept in a small cage in someone’s home. Classified as endangered, there are only 2500 bear bears left worldwide. The BSBCC is one of the few dedicated bear conservation networks – in Sabah, Malaysia, it runs a two-hectare care and rehabilitation center for rescued bears.

Eurasian brown bear

A brown bear in a zoo in Madrid | Photo: Flickr

This bear is one of the most widely distributed brown bears and is listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN. However, the organization says: “Least concern does not always mean that species are not endangered. There are declining species that are classified as Least Concern.”

Outside of Europe and Russia, where Eurasian brown bears predominate, groups of brown bears exist in small, isolated, and mostly critically endangered populations in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of north-west India and central China, and the island of Hokkaido in Japan.

While populations may be stable, WWF considers these brown bears a conservation priority. Because of their reliance on large natural areas, brown bears are important management indicators for a number of other wildlife species. Brown bears also play an important role as predators, keeping other animal populations in check. In addition, they act as seed dispersers and help maintain their own environment.

Eurasian brown bears primarily ate fruit (they are omnivores), so clearing trees forces brown bear families to live closer to human societies (where food is more available). If they come onto properties in search of food, they are often seen as aggressive and shot. They are often hunted for sport, and their gallbladders and paws are also highly prized.

– Asia Media Center

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