ASIATIC BLACK BEAR
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The Asiatic black bear, as its name implies, is a mainly black-colored bear that lives exclusively in Asia, from Iran to the Russian Far East (although it once lived across Europe, based on fossils found there). It’s most distinguishing feature is a crescent-shaped white marking on its chest, giving it the common name “moon bear” in several countries.
This species is versatile in where it can live and what it eats, and can survive in very degraded forests, close to people. Genetically and ecologically, it is most related to American black bears, although the Asiatic black bear covers a wider array of habitats and elevation. It is heavily persecuted for its parts (gall bladder and paws), and this threat has depressed populations in many areas.
Except where noted, all photos on this page are wild bears and natural environments, taken by field biologists.
- Large ears
- White crescent “moon” on chest
- Ruff around neck
Ursus thibetanus [G. Baron Cuvier, 1823]: Previously in genus Selenarctos (meaning moon bear). The specific name thibetanus derived from the original belief that this species’ range was limited to Tibet. Seven subspecies have been recognized, many of which have been corroborated as distinct genetic clades. This species is also commonly called the Himalayan black bear or Moon bear in some parts of the range.
Distinctive characteristics: A medium-sized black-colored bear with distinctively large rounded “Mickey Mouse” ears, normally with ruff of longer hair around the neck and white crescent-shaped marking on the chest. The ruff and chest-marking are similar to the sloth bear, but can be differentiated from the sloth bear in having a darker and shorter muzzle with typically a white chin marking, and shorter darker claws; distinct from sun bear in that the head is longer, ears larger, and lighter hairs on the muzzle do not extend to the eyes. Body size (especially leg length) and hair length vary a great deal geographically.
Distribution: Ranges from southeastern Iran (inhabited by the so-called Baluchistan bear [U. t. gedrosianus]), through the foothills of the Himalayas to Southeast Asia; China (which contains about half the range area); and separate clusters in northeastern China, the southern Russian Far East, North and South Korea; the southern islands of Japan (Honshu and Shikoku); and Taiwan.
- Lao PDR
- North Korea
- South Korea
Extirpation: Not extirpated in any range country in past 500 years. Fossil records indicate a once-larger range, extending as far west as France and north to Germany.
Elevational range: Near sea level to 4,300 m (in northeast India), typically not ranging above tree line.
Overlap with other bear species: Overlap sloth bears in northern and northeastern India; sun bears throughout mainland Southeast Asia (excluding Malaysia); giant pandas in central China; brown bears in northern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, central China, Russian Far East, and North Korea.
Range coincides with fruit-producing forest; montane areas often have the only forest large enough to support this species.
- Omnivorous diet based mainly on fruits and nuts
- Hibernates only in northern or high-elevation areas
- Reproductive cycle similar to American black bears, but with typically smaller litters
Habitat: Asiatic black bears inhabit a variety of broad-leaved and coniferous forested habitats with fruit or nut-bearing trees. In southeastern Iran and Pakistan, this species occupies an arid landscape with sparse trees and brush, often using riparian corridors with date palm. In the Russian Far East, their distribution to the north is limited by the northern limits of pine (Pinus koraiensis) and oak (Quercus mongolica), two key foods.
Diet: They consume a wide array of fleshy fruits and nuts; some important nuts include acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, beechnuts, and pine nuts. Because most fruits in their range are tree-borne, they often climb trees to eat fruits before they fall. When feeding in some types of trees, they break branches to reach the fruit and sit on the branches, forming a distinctive “platform” that is a useful field sign. Diet may also include varying amounts of insects and meat from wild mammalian ungulates, which they either kill or scavenge. In some areas they feed on anthropogenic foods such as corn, oats, and fruit-producing orchards.
Hiberbation: Asiatic black bears hibernate in northern parts of their range (Russia, Korea, Japan and northeastern China) and in high altitudes along the Himalayas, where foods are not available in winter (especially due to snow); in southern parts of the range pregnant females use birthing dens and may fast for an extended period.
Reproductive Cycle: Generally breed during June–July and give birth during November–March; however, timing of reproduction is not known for all portions of the range. Age of first reproduction is typically 4–5 years old, and they normally produce litters of 1 or 2 cubs.
- Claw markings on trees and other sign used as population index
- Individually-distinctive chest markings used for population estimates
- Reliable population estimates do not exist for any range country
- Populations thought to be declining in most range countries
Local population estimates: The only rigorous population estimates for this species have been produced in Thailand, based on mark–recapture (resight) with camera traps, using distinctive chest markings to identify individual bears. Densities ranged from 8–29 bears per 100 km².
Country and global population estimate: There is no reliable global population estimate. The four countries with the largest populations used ad hoc procedures (with unknown reliability) to derive rough population estimates: China (~28,000), Japan (12,000–19,000), India (5,000–7,000), Russia (5,000–7,000).
Population trends: South Korea and Japan report stable to increasing populations. In Japan, the range has expanded with increasing forest area and diminishing rural human populations. Bhutan and Thailand report stable populations, and India reports stable to declining populations. Forest area is increasing rapidly in China, as a result of mandated government programs aimed at reducing flooding and erosion, but it is unclear if Asiatic black bear populations have increased. All other countries report probable declining numbers. The most severe declines, estimated at >60% in the past 30 years, were reported in Vietnam and Bangladesh.
Based on expert opinion of BSG members in the Asiatic Black Bear Expert Team, this species declined by 30% over the past 30 years (3 generations), meeting the IUCN criteria for Vulnerable. Estimated/projected declines in the present (30 years overlapping the present) and future 30 years were less (20–30%), due largely to improved conditions (reforestation) in China.
Red List Status: VULNERABLE
- Forest loss, degradation and fragmentation
- Poaching for parts, especially gall bladders (bile used in traditional medicine) and paws
- Human-bear conflicts
The main threats limiting or causing population declines are habitat loss and poaching. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation occur due to logging, expansion of agriculture and plantations, roadway networks and dams. It is most severe in the southern portion of the range.
Commercial poaching is considered a major threat in at least half the range countries (China, Taiwan, Russia, India, and the five range countries in Southeast Asia), fueled by widespread use of indiscriminate cable snares and a growing network of international illegal wildlife trade throughout Southeast Asia. Poachers primarily seek gall bladders and paws. The market for bear paws appears to be increasing commensurate with an increasing number of wealthy people who find it within their means to indulge in this very expensive delicacy.
Bear bile, from gall bladders, has been an important component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for millennia. The medicinally active ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), has been shown, through controlled, clinical trials, to have many of the medicinal properties claimed in TCM as well as potentially other medicinal properties that were not previously known. Despite the availability of synthesized UDCA as well as a large number of herbal alternatives to bear bile in the Chinese pharmacopeia, many TCM practitioners prefer using bear bile because it is thought to be more effective and more natural than synthetic products.
Demand for bear bile spurred an industry to farm Asiatic black bears for their bile. Farmed bears are typically not killed, but rather the bile is taken from live bears, either through a surgically-created catheter or by periodic draining by syringe. Although much attention has been given to the animal welfare concerns of this practice, little is known about its effect on the poaching of wild bears. Five countries currently farm bears: China (>10,000 farmed bears, but actual number may be considerably higher); South Korea (farming being phased out; currently ~600, all sterilized); Vietnam (farming being phased out; once 4,000, currently ~660, all sterilized); Lao, and Myanmar (both with small but unknown numbers). Among these, China is the only country that breeds bears on farms to sustain the industry; in the other countries, farmed bears were taken from the wild. All international trade in bear bile, including farmed bile, is illegal under CITES, but within China, farmed bile is legal and can be purchased in pharmacies, hospitals, and at bear farms.
Human–bear conflicts pose additional threats because intolerance for losses caused by bears, or threats of human injury, prompt people to kill them. When natural foods are in short supply, these bears are readily attracted to crop fields (especially corn), orchards, and sometimes conifer plantations (where they strip the bark and consume the cambium).
This species causes a number of human injuries and some fatalities each year, and is considered somewhat aggressive. Conflicts occur especially when human activities occur near or in bear habitat, when forest loss or fragmentation expose bears to human activities, and when natural foods become scarce, driving bears to seek substitute foods.
RESEARCH & CONSERVATION
- Efforts to reduce poaching include experiments at demand reduction and more effective enforcement to reduce snaring
- Radio-telemetry studies limited to a few countries, all in the north (Japan, Taiwan, S. Korea, Russia)
- Many studies throughout the range using camera traps
Asiatic Black Bear Scent Marking, China – Sheng Li
Asiatic Black Bear Walking at Night – Daphen, MH
Conservation measures: Four Asiatic black bear range countries (China, Lao PDR, India, and Vietnam) are among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of rate of forest gain. However, it is unknown whether these reforested areas support bears. In Vietnam, poaching may have already eliminated bears in many local populations, and the new forest plantations contain little bear food. Community-managed forests have become increasingly important tools for conservation of large mammals in some parts of Asia. Camera-trapping studies are occurring across the range, revealing where bears are present and where they are absent or rare. More detailed information on habitat needs is being gained through radio-telemetry studies in a few areas.