Dave Garshelis, Co-chair IUCN Bear Specialist Group

At the IBA Quito conference a year ago, the Bear Specialist Group presented a series of papers under the topic: “Is Bear Conservation Advancing?” Of 15 presentations, only 3 gave an optimistic answer. Maybe our expectations in conservation are too high. Or maybe it’s because we have a hard time visualizing our progress in the midst of so much negativity. In Ljubljana, we looked at things another way. The theme “What would have been without us?” is what’s called the counterfactual approach. It means “counter to the facts” – or what didn’t happen. Imagine if we hadn’t been here working to help bears, what would have occurred?
Rachel Hoffmann, Director of Conservation Outcomes at the IUCN Species Survival Commission, led off the session with an engaging invited talk. She gave some examples of conservation actions dealing with other taxa, demonstrating how the counterfactual approach helps to visualize success, even for species that are still declining (but at a slower rate than they would have been without the conservation intervention). She also discussed the emerging field of “conservation optimism”, which recognizes that the motivation to devote oneself to conservation, to recruit new people, and to enthuse donors, are reinforced by highlighting successes rather than harping on gloom and doom. Rachel stressed the importance of celebrating, not diminishing successes, so these successes can inspire further actions, and also prompt replication of the successful model. She also reviewed some of the specific successes of the Bear Specialist Group.

Rachel Hoffmann, from the office of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, came to the IBA conference to present an invited paper in the BSG session: “What would have been without us?” She also made presentations at the BSG business meeting, and participated in meetings with IBA Council. During the fieldtrip day she joined a group of BSG members (here Mike Proctor) to hike up Mt. Snežnik, the highest mountain in the Dinaric range of southern Slovenia, and core of brown bear range. Photo credit: D. Garshelis

Rachel Hoffmann, from the office of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, came to the IBA conference to present an invited paper in the BSG session: “What would have been without us?” She also made presentations at the BSG business meeting, and participated in meetings with IBA Council. During the fieldtrip day she joined a group of BSG members (here Mike Proctor) to hike up Mt. Snežnik, the highest mountain in the Dinaric range of southern Slovenia, and core of brown bear range.
Photo credit: D. Garshelis

Emre Can, Research scientist at Oxford University, gave examples of what might now be if not for the IUCN. He stressed the importance of individual people in conservation success, contrasting talkers versus doers, Eastern versus Western concepts, and disputed the notion that conservation successes will be reliant on technological breakthroughs. He used the captivating story of the cave rescue of the youth soccer team in Thailand as an example of how complex issues can be solved successfully by people working together, focused on a common urgent mission, and providing innovative perspectives from multiple fields.

The session then moved to more specific case studies, first involving sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) in India. Nishith Dharaiya, Co-chair of the Sloth Bear Expert Team, discussed the accomplishments of this team, and mused about the lack of collaboration and idea-sharing among sloth bear studies that would have occurred in the absence of this team structure. He showed a series of range maps for sloth bears, ever changing yet still very divergent, and how the team is aiming to create an accurate map that can be used as a baseline for gauging changes in sloth bear distribution. The ET had a meeting this year, and is looking forward to a Conservation Action Planning workshop in the near future. Kartick Satyanarayan, CEO and co-founder of Wildlife SOS, India, showed how an organization focused on rehabilitating wildlife and stemming the removal of bears from the wild has expanded into many conservation arenas. Kartick’s talk was presented by Yaduraj Khadpekar, Senior Veterinary Officer, Wildlife SOS. Yaduraj discussed how dancing sloth bears were eliminated from India (by 2009), and projected how many bears would now be taken from the wild had Wildlife SOS not intervened. There are ~300 confiscated sloth bears in sanctuaries, which are providing opportunities for educational outreach as well as research on captive bears that is aiding research programs in the wild.

The next 3 talks featured European brown bears (Ursus arctos), in captivity and in the wild. Lydia Kolter, Co-chair of the Captive Bears Expert Team, presented a talk for José Kok, who is Zoology Director for Ouwehand Zoo and co-chair of the EAZA Bear TAG. This presentation focused on the conservation role of captive brown bears across Europe (340 bears in 95 institutions): namely as ambassadors for wild bears (i.e., the importance of generating positive opinions by the public), producing educational materials that promote positive coexistence, assisting with fundraising, and answering research questions that would be unattainable in the wild. Annemarie Weegenaar, director of Bears in Mind, based in the Netherlands, continued on this same theme, using the example of bear sanctuaries, such as the Bear Forest, a large semi-natural enclosure. She stressed the importance of providing visitors a positive view of bears: good welfare inspires a connection to the animal, and wild-looking captive settings inspire a connection with healthy wild habitats. Imagine the tarnished image of the species had the 552 bears rescued over the past 33 years remained in cramped cages or on leashes. Djuro Huber, Co-chair of the European Brown Bear Expert Team, reviewed the status of the 10 wild bear populations in Europe, 6 of which are presently increasing, and only 1 of which may be declining. He reviewed the many reasons for this conservation success, including reintroductions, multiple international agreements, an explosion of research, and specific conservation players, including IUCN’s Large Carnivore Initiative of Europe. What would it look like without this effort? Djuro estimated that 2 populations would have gone extinct, and 3 would be in serious decline.

The final talk was the only conference presentation on giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Dajun Wang, Co-chair of the Giant Panda Expert Team, reviewed the epic success story of giant panda conservation, which was initially triggered by a dramatic decline in pandas during the 1970–1980s. Included in these conservation efforts were: confiscation of all guns, a logging ban, massive reforestation, and establishment of an extensive panda reserve system. Success was manifested by the downlisting of giant pandas from Endangered to Vulnerable in 2016 on the IUCN Red List. This attracted much media attention — far more than the downlisting of other iconic species. Dajun emphasized that whereas this success would not have occurred without the multifaceted conservation program, giant pandas would not have disappeared, even without this conservation, as they live in remote areas, are not involved in conflicts with people, and had no economic value (food or fur). An often neglected benefit of giant panda conservation, though, are the many other species that benefited under the umbrella of the panda, including many ungulates and the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus).

This collection of talks emphasized the important point that a world without bear conservation efforts would be a considerably worse place. It is clearly discouraging to compare the present to a pre-human dominated world; instead, consider a more modern baseline of say 20 years ago, and look at the progress we’ve made.

Dave Garshelis

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

originally published in International Bear News 2018 Fall Vol. 27 No. 3 on pages 17-18