During our times as volunteers in Kuterevo, we had of course already learnt some things about Brown Bears. However, there are seven other species of bears, spread around the world. We thought that it would be interesting to learn about these other bears, and to compare the situations of bears in other countries – in the wild and in refuges – with the situation in Croatia and in our refuge. We therefore decided to all get more informed about this topic during two weeks. We all specialized in some topics and presented them to each other, and we watched two documentaries, one about the Panda and one about the Asian Black Bear.
The two ´bear weeks´ were very interesting, but also somewhat depressing. Worldwide, bear numbers are decreasing almost everywhere due to human activities. The only well protected bear is the Panda. Does a bear species have to be nearly extinct, cute and fluffy, and an international icon of nature conservation before it finally gets the respect and protection it deserves…?
Bear Biology and Bears around the World
We started the bear weeks with an interesting presentation by Marco about the biology of all the eight different species of bears that exist. Later, we all got more informed about the situation of bears in different parts of the world, including their threats and conservation measures that are taken. Below, we give a summary of these presentations.
Biology and Presence
Giant Panda – Ailuropoda melanoleuca
Map: distribution of Giant Pandas (2009): several isolated spots in China
Source: IUCN Red List
Spectacled Bear – Tremarctos ornatus
Photograph: Barbara von Hoffman/Animals Animals-Earth Scenes
Map: Distribution of Spectacled Bears (2012): northern and western South America. Source: IUCN Red List
Sloth Bear – Melursus ursinus
Map: Distribution of Sloth Bears (2010): India and Sri Lanka. Source: IUCN Red List
Sun Bear – Helarctos malayanus
Map: Distribution of Sun Bears (2010): tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia. Source: IUCN Red List
American Black Bear – Ursus americanus
Photograph: Taken at Cincinnati Zoo. Photo by Greg Hume
Map: Distribution of American Black Bears (2010): Canada and US.
Asian Black Bear (Moon Bear) – Ursus thibetanus
Map: Distribution of Asian Black Bears (2010): mainly mountainous areas in Asia. Source: IUCN Red List.
Polar Bear – Ursus maritimus
Photograph: http://www.naturespicsonline.com, author: Alan Wilson
Map: Distribution of Polar Bears (2006): around the North Pole.
Brown Bear – Ursus arctos
Map: Distribution of Brown Bears: North America, Europe, Asia
The Sun Bear, living in Southeast Asia, is the smallest of all bear species, with adult bears weighing just between 27 (females) and 70 kilos (males). Polar bears are the biggest bears. Male adults on average weight 720 kilos. When they stand on four feet, they measure about two meters from toes to shoulders! The weight of bears is very variable and depends a lot on their diet.
All bears have the biology of carnivores, although most species eat more than 50% vegetarian food. Polar bears are real carnivores, eating mainly seals, while Pandas eat almost only bamboo. Sloth Bears feed mostly on insects, and their mouths are pointy and suitable for getting insects from trees.
Brown Bears occur in a big part of the world, and their diet varies between different areas. In Croatia, the diet of Brown Bears consists for only about 5% of meat. The Brown Bears in Finland eat almost 30% meat. The Grizzly Bear in North America is a subspecies of the Brown Bear, and these bears eat 10 to 40% meat, including fat salmons.
Unlike the Croatian Brown Bears, most bear species don´t hibernate. Only some bears in cold areas go into hibernation during winter.
The numbers of most bear species (excluding Brown Bears) have been declining for many years. For example, both the number of Moon Bears and Sun Bears has decreased with more than 30% in the past three decades.
The main threats for bears are all related to people. Numbers of bears are declining because of hunting, poaching and destruction of their habitat. In many countries in Asia, bears are hunted for body parts which are by some said to be healthy to eat or to bring luck. Mainly Sun Bears are also hunted and kept in farms for their bile: the digestion fluid in their gall blatter, which is used as a traditional medicine.
Most bear species are classified as ´vulnerable´ on the Red List of the IUCN (link to www.iucnredlist.org), which means that there is a high risk of endangerment of the species in the wild. The Panda is listed as ´endangered´, because there are only several thousand individuals left in the wild, spread over isolated areas, and there is a considerable chance that the species will die out in the wild. The Brown Bear is the only bear species to be globally listed under ´least concern´ by the IUCN, even though their numbers have been decreasing considerably.
In most countries where threatened bears reside, the bears are protected by law and it is forbidden to hunt them. However, in many countries these laws are badly implemented. This is mainly the case in vast countries outside Europe.
The Panda is a special case. As it is much endangered and very mediagenic, there are many programs to help it, and there are severe punishments by the Chinese government for poaching. Panda habitat is being restored and different areas in which Pandas reside are being linked together. Also, Pandas which are raised in captivity are being released into the wild.
Bear Refuges around the World
We found it interesting to inform ourselves about other bear refuges in the world than Kuterevo, to learn about the situation of bears in refuges in those countries. Marco made a detailed presentation about 7 other refuges: 3 in Europe (Germany, Netherlands and Hungary), 2 in Southeast Asia (Cambodia and Indonesia), and 2 in North America (USA and Canada).
We discovered different ways of managing the bears in refuges, like in North America: after rehabilitating the orphan cubs, they release them in the wild. Even though there it is possible, in Croatia this action would be deadly for the bears: the forests here are fragmented and the bears have lost their natural instinct in the enclosure, and they would probably get close to humans again to look for food… then they would die or have to go back to a refuge.
To finish, most of these refuges are run by volunteers and we can stress two important aspects: the refuges propose educational workshops about bears, and work thanks to donations to finance for example new enclosures. The first aspect has, we hope, a direct link with the second: if we succeed to inform people about what bears need to live peacefully and how people should behave when they meet one of them, then maybe less bears will arrive in the refuges because they were too much in contact with humans. Then, we won’t need more enclosures anymore to welcome bears. Unlike zoos, we don’t wish to keep bears in enclosures, but work to make people understand that one of the best ways to love and respect nature, is to let it its wilderness, bears included.
Alice (France) and Kim (Netherlands)