Dave Garshelis, Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Much has been written about how people from 5 generations interact within the global workforce. Mentoring is a common theme, deemed crucial to success in many fields, especially science. A mentor can change one’s life: open a new way of thinking; provide advice, encouragement, and opportunities; and set one on a career path. Likewise, the act of mentoring is self-satisfying; provides deeper learning; and widens one’s perspectives and interpersonal relationships.
Here I provide some reflections on mentoring in the world of bear research and conservation. Mentoring is a personal relationship, and so this column is personal. The subject matter was prompted by some recent events, both celebratory and sad.
Mike Pelton: One of the Original Bear Mentors
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the IBA, which began as an informal gathering of 49 North American bear biologists in the Yukon Territory of Canada in 1968. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of continuous research on American black bears (Ursus americanus) at the University of Tennessee. That remarkable long-term research was started by my mentor, Dr. Mike Pelton. Mike’s extraordinary career in bear research began with a request to study bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), Tennessee, prompted by declining sightings there. Mike chose to make the best of that initial opportunity by mentoring a string of 53 graduate students, who studied bears in the GSMNP, other sites in southeastern U.S., and internationally. The GSMNP research remains the longest continuous study of any bear species in the world.
In May 2018, many of Mike’s previous graduate students flew to Tennessee from as far away as California, Alaska, and even Malaysia to celebrate this 50th anniversary of bear research (which is still-ongoing, now led by Joe Clark). We shared many bear stories and photos from the past, and also enjoyed presentations on some current research. Most attendees were no longer involved in bear research, and indeed many had long ago switched to other wildlife-related professions or something entirely different. But all had one thing in common: an obvious deep respect for their mentor, and a lifelong appreciation for the opportunity afforded to them as a graduate student under his tutelage. Coming back for a reunion was a way of reconnecting with old colleagues and meeting new ones, but mostly as a way of showing the respect and admiration for a person who provided a pivotal role in each of our lives.
I am a proud member of the first decadal group (1970s grads) of Mike’s students. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been a part of that. I was able to study bears only because another student had to drop out due to unfortunate circumstances, and Mike allowed me to take his place. Forty-two years later I still vividly reflect on the fortuitousness of that event in my life. I have come to the realization that so much of who you become is not merely your own doing, but singular events that direct you in one way or another. It was important for me to attend the reunion to come back to the place where I got my start. I also had the chance to relive some of that start, including a hike up the trail that I had hiked almost every day, trapping or tracking bears –– and almost out of a storybook, was treated to an extended observation of a mother and 2 yearlings feeding on spring foods along the trailside. Such sightings of bears in the GSMNP are common now, testament that the research informed successful management.
It’s hard to thank someone enough for providing the opportunity that paves the way for the profession that you cherish daily. I hope the magnificent turnout at the 50th reunion did that.
But that reunion also gave me the chance to think about how many further people were mentored by those who were mentored by Mike. And of course that’s the same for that whole first-generation of bear biologists, who are mainly now retired, but whose mentoring now extends to a third generation. The full impact of these early mentors on the world of bear biology and management is incalculable.
Mentoring through the BSG
One of the chief aims of the Bear Specialist Group is to support younger biologists who are working to conserve bears across the globe. We do this by providing a network of people who freely share information and opinions, by creating an atmosphere for intellectual discovery, by writing formal letters of support, and by allowing members to use their BSG credentials as evidence of their designation as an acknowledged “bear specialist”. We know that on some occasions, the BSG name has helped to sway conservation-related decisions. But more often, being a BSG member simply confers a confidence that peers and mentors in the organization consider your efforts to be worthy. This is good to know when working in the field of conservation, where it is often frustratingly difficult to document success (Garshelis and Steinmetz 2018).
Recent events prompt me to single out 2 individuals whose exemplary work was partially aided by BSG mentoring. I had the opportunity to meet both of them on separate occasions at IBA conferences, and in both cases was struck by their enthusiasm for conserving a population of bears that has been of great interest to me –– the so-called Baluchistan bear.
The Baluchistan bear is a subspecies of Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus) that inhabits the Baluchistan region of southeastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan. In the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, this was the only extant subspecies of Ursidae singled out for a separate listing (Critically Endangered). It is likely the most isolated population, or collection of populations, of Asiatic black bear. It certainly is the most ecologically distinct subspecies of Asiatic black bear, living in a sparsely-vegetated arid region at the western extremity of its range. Since the first scientific documentation of the existence of this bear in 1877, little was known about it until the past decade, whereupon some of the best young wildlife researchers/pioneers in Iran made it their life’s quest.
In 2009, Taher Ghadirian, then age 27 with an M.S. degree from Islamic Azad University in Tehran, began a project on Asiatic black bears in Hormozgan Province, Iran. This province is situated along the Persian Gulf, where the climate is exceedingly hot (sometimes >120°F or 49°C) and humid. Except for a photograph from the 1980s, there were no documented records of Asiatic black bears living in this harsh environment. Taher’s team began a camera-trapping effort and found that the species was more widespread than even thought to have occurred historically. Two counties were identified as priority target areas for further research, having good bear populations but with high conflicts due to crop raiding and livestock depredation. Taher’s team initiated an extensive review of the social, cultural, and economic characteristics of the local people in order to most effectively work with them toward improved bear conservation in the face of these conflicts. After 4 years of gaining an understanding of bear distribution and people’s interactions and attitudes toward bears, Taher’s team completed a “Strategic plan for the conservation of Asiatic black bears in Hormozgan Province”, which was carefully crafted based on IUCN guidelines (Ghadirian et al. 2014).
Taher has been involved in more than 30 different projects related to wildlife research, conservation, and public awareness. He received the UNESCO MAB Young Scientist Award in recognition of his research and educational activities in the mangrove forests of Hara Biosphere Reserve, Qeshm Island. He has published over 20 scientific papers (in English and Farsi), is second author of the Atlas of Mammals of Iran, and the Managing Editor of Pazan, the first Iranian mammalogy journal.
In 2011 Taher was granted membership in the Bear Specialist Group (BSG) as well as the Cat Specialist Group (for his collaborative work on cheetahs and leopards). As Co-chair of the Bear Specialist Group and also Co-chair of the Asiatic Black Bear Expert Team, I consider Taher my primary source of accurate, up-to-date information on the Iranian black bear population. He was an essential contributor to the Ursus thibetanus Red List account and range map. He worked though the BSG to contribute a series of fascinating articles on the biology and conservation of Baluchistan bears for this newsletter (Ghadirian et al. 2011, 2012a, 2012b, 2014; Khayat et al. 2015). Last year he wrote an article about a unique and innovative connection between local people’s handicrafts and bear conservation. He submitted it to International Bear News and requested that the authors be identified simply as “the Asiatic black bear project of Hormozgan”. When I told him that we required a list of author names, he chose as first author a local person whom he had recently met, and who had volunteered to assist with the project (Arianejad et al. 2017).
From frequent BSG-related correspondence with Taher I knew that one of his goals was to help select sites for new protected areas in Hormozgan Province dedicated to the conservation of Asiatic black bears, but which would not conflict with the livelihoods of local people. We had even seriously discussed radio-collaring some bears (he knew of some hotspots that they regularly used, where trapping might be successful); this could provide information about habitat requirements and amount of area needed to protect them, as well as draw more attention from the public and government officials (there’s nothing like a few individual collared bears to do that). But all this work was abruptly terminated for reasons that cannot be discussed here.
It is my sincere hope that this letter of support from all his colleagues in the BSG, highlighting Taher’s extraordinary dedication to conservation of this iconic subspecies and his demonstrated successes, enable him to go back to that task where he is so needed.
Hadi Fahimi began work on Baluchistan bears in 2008, initially for his MSc thesis. He has since worked in all 3 Iranian provinces where they occur: Kerman, Sistan & Baluchestan, and Hormozgan. He initiated a major effort to collect all known bear presence points across this region, so as to accurately map and model the occurrence of the species and to discern the extent of connectivity/fragmentation of the various populations (as of 3 years ago, he had accumulated over 700 points). This was to be Hadi’s PhD work. I had hoped to take him on as a PhD student, but we couldn’t find sufficient funding to cover the expenses at a U.S. university, so last year he went on to become a PhD candidate at Islamic Azad University in Tehran.
But a tragic commuter plane crash took Hadi’s life (please see obituary, page 11). When I heard the horrifying news, I remembered a wonderfully friendly, thoughtful, and energetic guy who I spent a half-day with in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2010. That same year I was a peer-reviewer of a paper that he published on the Baluchistan bears’ peculiar use of caves (for refuge when feeding near humans and also relief from the summer heat; Fahimi et al. 2011). Hadi’s eagerness to work with me to improve his paper was refreshing. We corresponded for a few years after that, and based on his growing achievements and his aspirations for innovative conservation actions, I appointed him as a BSG member in 2014. He listed this achievement as the #1 highlight on his CV in 2018, and he took full advantage of this membership to share his knowledge and gain knowledge from others.
Hadi’s latest work, published posthumously (Fahimi et al. 2018) showed that seeds germinating from scats of Baluchistan bears may help to reforest this bear’s own habitat –– a novel idea that may foster more support of this bear from local people.
I understand that Hadi’s wife Nahid hopes to carry on with some of the work that he was involved in, and to her I offer the BSG’s continued mentorship.
“I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” — Denzel Washington
I thank Azar Sedaghati Khayat and Arash Ghoddousi for helping to pull together the information on their colleagues, Taher and Hadi.
Arianejad, M., T. Ghadirian, A. S. Khayat, Y. T. Otaghvar, S. Tavakolimehr. 2017. Revival of handicraft aids survey for Asiatic black bear corridors in Hormozgan Province, Iran. International Bear News 26(3):14–15.
Fahimi, H., G. H. Yusefi, S. M. Madjdzadeh, A. A. Damangir, M. E. Sehhatisabet, and L. Khalatbari. 2011. Camera traps reveal use of caves by Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus) (Mammalia: Ursidae) in southeastern Iran. Journal of Natural History 45:2363–2373.
Fahimi, H., A. T. Qashqaei, M. Chalani, Z. Asadi, S. Broomand, N. Ahmadi, and G. H. Yusefi. 2018. Evidence of seed germination in scats of the Asiatic Black Bear Ursus thibetanus in Iran (Mammalia: Carnivora). Zoology in the Middle East 64:182–184.
Garshelis, D.L., and R. Steinmetz. 2018. Is conservation advancing? It depends how you ask the question. International Bear News 27(1):5–6.
Ghadirian, T., A. Ghoddousi, M. Soufi, A. T. Qashqaei, and M. Ghasemi. 2011. Conservation needs for the Asiatic black bear at its westernmost extent: Hormozgan Province, southern Iran. International Bear News 20(3):13–14.
Ghadirian, T., A. Ghoddousi, H. Abolghasemi, A. Riazifar, G. Nekoei and M. Dehghani. 2012a. First camera-trap photos of Asiatic black bears in the Bashagard Region of southeastern Iran. International Bear News 21(1):15–17.
Ghadirian, T., A. Ghoddousi, A. T. Qashqaei, M. Soufi, and H. Abolghasemi. 2012b. What can Asiatic black bears find to eat at the western edge of their geographic range (southern Iran)? International Bear News 21(3):27–28.
Ghadirian, T., A. S. Khayat, Y. T. Otaghvar, A. Ghoddousi, H. Pishvaei, A. Riazifar, F. Goudarzi, and M. Ghasemi. 2014. Strategic conservation planning for Asiatic Black Bears in Iran based on IUCN guidelines. International Bear News 23(1):8–11.
Khayat A. S., Y. T. Otaghvar, S. Tavakolimehr, T. Ghadirian, and H. Pishvaee. 2015. Asiatic black bear conservation taught in Bashagard schools, Iran. International Bear News 24(3):14–15.
Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Grand Rapids, MN 55744, USA
originally published in International Bear News 2018 Summer Vol. 27 No. 2 on pages 6-10