Bears are majestic animals. They inspire imagery of the vast power of the wilderness and our relationship with it. They remind us that we are not always at the height of the animal hierarchy when in the great outdoors. Feelings of respect are almost inherent when thinking of bears, though one thing that we may not usually associate with them is their significance to the greater ecosystem.
By now most of us have heard of the crisis surrounding polar bears. Due to global warming we are seeing the loss of sea ice, bears being forced to spend longer durations of time on land outside of their most desirable hunting conditions, forced prolonged fasting, and the increasing struggle for mother bears to nurse their cubs.
Polar bears, while critical and representative of a larger issue, are only a piece of the conversation surrounding bear conservation. All eight species of bears face threats but some are faring far better than others.
Sun bears residing in Southeast Asian tropical forests are experiencing immediate threat due to deforestation, illegal hunting and pet trading, and human-bear conflict. The population has been driven to extremely low numbers, while it is not known exactly how many are left, their habitat is being destroyed at an alarming and accelerating rate for farm land often consisting of palm oil crops. Sun bears currently are listed as vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Spectacled bears which live in the Andes Mountains, with some exception, are facing threats of poaching and habitat loss. There are numerous reasons for poaching, including trophy hunting, the pet trade, and their gall bladders being valued in traditional Chinese medicine. Much of their current habitat is in question as to whether it is large enough to sustain long term populations.
Panda bears, native to central China, are understood to have a population of 1,864, with 600 more living in zoos and breeding facilities. This is a recent increase. They are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. There are numerous reasons why pandas became endangered in the first place and their ability to make a comeback is hindered by their slow reproductive rate. In the wild it may also be difficult for cubs to survive as they have multiple natural predators.
Sloth bears in the Indian subcontinent are experiencing much of the same, with habitat loss, pet trading, and illegal hunting all occurring. There are estimated to be less than 20,000 left. They are listed as vulnerable, and being that they are statistically shown to be the most aggressive bears toward humans, their future populations will likely continue to face threats.
The Asiatic black bear, North American black bear, and brown bears are the three most populous species with current populations of 59,259, 800,000, and 200,000 respectively. All three of these species face habitat loss, though the Asiatic black bear is especially threatened. The rapid deforestation, illegal poaching and the current increase of killing ‘problem bears’ plays a major part in their population loss. North American black bears have faced significant habitat loss though they have maintained healthy numbers. Brown bears, being the most international bear species, face threats in some areas and countries while flourishing in others.
Tableau dashboard showing current populations and threats:
Bears, like any species that has had many years to take on an essential role in their ecosystem, provide numerous methods of preservation. These animals are natural forest fertilizers. Bears with access to salmon, like the Kodiak bears in Alaska, discard salmon carcasses which decompose and fertilize the land. This concept extrapolates out to any time a bear hunts for food and leaves behind the scraps, enabling the fertilization of the soil. It is estimated that 80% of the nitrogen provided to trees in the Great Bear Forest in Canada is due to the salmon carcasses left behind by bears. Other animals may also feed on what is left behind. This is not the only way in which they aid in fertilization, as bears often are responsible for breaking down fallen tree limbs and other organic matter that may subsequently be more quickly decomposed and used by the ecosystem.
A common dietary source for bears around the globe is berries. When bears eat berries they then disperse seeds around forests as they forage. It is estimated that brown and black bears disperse 200,000 seeds per hour per square kilometer through foraging or excreting waste. Bears are also helpful in maintaining healthy populations in prey animals as they are able to take down sick, old, and injured prey to open up space for the healthy individuals to increase their odds of breeding.
When protecting a given species of bear we are actually protecting their entire ecosystem. Considering the spectacled bear and the concerns surrounding available area to maintain a healthy population, we can conclude that bears need significant space to exist. While not all bear species are endangered, their persistence and return in some areas, due to the aforementioned reasons backing up their value, is a possible solution for protecting ecosystems as a whole. Protecting a species of bear, with limits on hunting, effective measures taken against illegal poaching, ending the destruction of their habitat, and educating locals by proxy will enable the protection of the ecosystem in which they reside.
Humans often have a complex relationship with bears. When camping, backpacking, or just admiring the outdoors, we must be aware of how to respect them and how to deal with them given an encounter. Bears generally do not want to associate with humans as they understand the dangers that we pose to them. Hopefully you or I will never encounter a ‘problem bear,’ that was likely made into a problem bear due to human irresponsibility, hopefully we will be able to witness them for generations in their natural habitat. They have throughout human history played a part in cultural mythology, symbolism, and spirituality for good reason. Protecting them is protecting nature and protecting this planet.