Dave Garshelis, Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Rob Steinmetz, Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group

At the BSG session at the IBA conference in Quito, each presenter was asked to answer the question: Is bear conservation advancing (in relation to the topic of their talk)?  Of 15 presentations, covering 6 of the 7 terrestrial bears (all but the American black bear), the answer was equivocal. Only 3 presenters gave an optimistic impression of the current conservation efforts in their country or region. Others had a more qualified, or more pessimistic outlook.
One explanation is that the presenters in this session happened to be overly pessimistic, or discussed issues that were particularly intractable. We think this was not the case: the issues were diverse, as were the presenters.

A more likely explanation is that while conservation may be advancing, it is not advancing as fast, or with as much effectiveness, as we (all) would hope. In other words, our expectations are higher than we can reasonably achieve. It is not necessarily bad to set lofty goals, unless there is a negative reaction when those goals are rarely achieved. This could signal to the public, to donors, and to future conservation biologists that what we are doing is not worthwhile. Why would someone want to support a lost cause, or worse yet, devote their life to a lost cause?

Our concept for the theme of the BSG session was to examine how a cross-section of the most active bear biologists –– young and old; from Europe, South America, and Asia; examining bears, habitats, people, and conservation efforts –– truly felt about the progress of the work that they perform each day.

Frequency of responses of the presenters at the BSG session to the question: Is bear conservation advancing? Presenters were asked to choose 1 of the 4 designated responses with reference to the topic of their talk.

Frequency of responses of the presenters at the BSG session to the question: Is bear conservation advancing? Presenters were asked to choose 1 of the 4 designated responses with reference to the topic of their talk.

We could have guided the session to a potentially more positive outlook by modifying the theme: Are bears better off today than they would have been without conservation efforts?  Interestingly, nobody directly answered that question in their presentation. And certainly, that really is a different question. But it’s also an important one, and maybe would be a better gauge of our progress.

In a global review of the impacts of conservation, the IUCN compared trajectories in Red List categories for groups of species (Hoffman et al. 2010). For example, a quarter of all mammal species are Threatened (Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered) –– has this gotten better or worse over time (using consistent measurement methods)? To answer this question the IUCN uses an aggregated measure of extinction risk based on the Red List categories of all assessed species within a taxon, called the Red List Index (RLI). The RLI has declined over time for all taxa (some at alarming rates), seemingly confirming the pessimistic view that conservation is not working. This decline in the RLI is not due to different methods of assessment, or better data, but to what is called “genuine changes”. In other words, more species in the taxa moved to a more threatened category than moved to a safer category. The decline does not even consider species that declined in abundance or geographic range, but not enough to “uplist” to a more threatened category.

But the IUCN observed that despite the general deterioration in RLI, some species did improve, and for the most part these improvements could be directly traced to conservation efforts (e.g., Young et al. 2014). In other words, without these conservation efforts, the RLI would have declined even faster. For example, Hoffmann et al. (2015) estimated that the rate of decline for the world’s 235 ungulate species would have been 8x worse without the conservation actions currently in place.

Is this just a positive spin on a bad situation? Or do these conservation success stories give us some hope that conservation can work? Moreover, counter to the above argument that some species are declining but not fast enough to uplist, there are likely also some species that are improving, but not fast enough to downlist to a less threatened Red List category (Hoffman et al. 2011).

In fact, we suggest that most conservationists who have had input into the Red List assessments tended to err on the side of keeping their species “on the list” (i.e., threatened) so as not to lose ground in any conservation actions. Certainly, nobody wants to downlist a species prematurely; thus, in doing assessments (whether officially for the global Red List or any national Red List, or less formally for some local area), conservationists tend to find reasons not to downgrade the species or paint too promising a future.

Bear conservation advanced most when bears were viewed as valuable to local people. Often the step before valuable is simply tolerable. Photo credit: Slaven Reljić

Bear conservation advanced most when bears were viewed as valuable to local people. Often the step before valuable is simply tolerable. Photo credit: Slaven Reljić

Consider arguably the biggest recent conservation success story among the bears –– the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). At the BSG session in Quito, Dajun Wang showed that within the broad conservation community, instead of crediting the panda’s downlisting from Endangered to Vulnerable to China’s exemplary conservation efforts, there was widespread distrust and even dismay. Although pandas no longer meet the strict criteria for Endangered, some suggest that they should still qualify based on other, non-IUCN criteria (Xu et al. 2017).

On a less dramatic scale of positive news, sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) were recently rediscovered in Bangladesh and China, and a number of recent camera trapping studies have shown that this species is more tolerant of degraded habitats than previously thought. That’s a good sign for their future if previously logged or burned habitats are allowed to recover. Likewise, sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) have recently been found to travel greater distances and in more open, human-populated habitats between protected areas than previously thought possible; and Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) have been discovered in places they were not known to exist, and appear to be increasing in areas where just 10 years ago they were in decline. It is unclear how many of these findings represent a “genuine change” in the species status versus a correction of erroneous past information. Accordingly, we do not know if any of this is related to on-the-ground conservation actions (although some reforestation projects seem to be having positive effects). Nevertheless, they certainly open up possibilities for conservation in sites that otherwise might have been written off.

To be sure, among the 6 species of threatened bears, all but the giant panda are thought to be suffering widespread declines. But, also to be sure, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to the real rate of decline, whether that rate is changing (i.e., lessening or increasing), and even what it is due to (i.e., actual limiting factors). Also even if the species is declining as a whole, that is not true for every population of each of these species. Certainly some populations are stable or increasing, and for some, this is attributable to actions of dedicated conservationists.

Conservation could be advancing in small patches –– those places where people are actively working. That may be less than we hope for, but these successes are worth documenting, as it could mean that we are not meeting our own expectations in part because we lack the people and resources, and not because what we’re doing doesn’t work. Maybe at the next conference, we should highlight those positive stories, under the theme: Where would we have been, if not for …..?


Literature Cited

Hoffmann, M., C. Hilton-Taylor, A. Angulo, et al. 2010. The impact of conservation on the status of the world’s vertebrates. Science 330:1503–1509.

Hoffmann, M., J. L. Belant, J. S. Chanson, N. A. Cox, J. Lamoreux, A. S. L. Rodrigues, J. Schipper, and S. N. Stuart. 2011. The changing fates of the world’s mammals. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366:2598–2610.

Hoffmann, M., J.W. Duckworth, K. Holmes, D.P. Mallon, A.S.L. Rodrigues, and S. N. Stuart. 2015. The difference conservation makes to extinction risk of the world’s ungulates.  Conservation Biology 29:1303–1313.

Xu, W., A. Viña, L. Kong, S. L. Pimm, J. Zhang, W. Yang, Y. Xiao, L. Zhang, X. Chen, J. Liu, and Z. Ouyang.  2017. Reassessing the conservation status of the giant panda using remote sensing.  Nature Ecology & Evolution 1:1635–1638.

Young, R.P., M.A. Hudson, A.M.R. Terry, C.G. Jones, R.E. Lewis, V. Tatayah, N. Zuël, and S.H.M. Butchart. 2014. Accounting for conservation: Using the IUCN Red List Index to evaluate the impact of a conservation organization. Biological Conservation 180: 84–96.

Dave Garshelis

Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Grand Rapids, MN 55744, USA
Email: dave.garshelis@state.mn.us

Rob Steinmetz

Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group
World Wildlife Fund –Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand
Email: robtyn@hotmail.com

originally published in International Bear News 2018 Spring Vol. 27 No. 1 on pages 5-6