On the bear trail

By Brendan Moyle 31/03/2015

I’m back in Beijing.  In the meeting room, two large maps of China are affixed to the wall.  In theory the map describes the distribution of Asiatic black bears in China.  Most are concentrated in Sichuan province, or up near the Russian Far East (HeilongJiang, Jilin).

Someone’s eye roves over the map. They spot a minute finger of China, sticking in the gap between N Korea and Russia.  It’s a long from anywhere else. They jokingly suggest it would be worth a visit. I wryly note I’ve already been there.  It’s got a nice tiger reserve.  I’m starting to appreciate that I have been to a lot of places in China most people never see.

Anyway, the point of the meeting is Asiatic black bear conservation.  There’s a tie-in to bear farming and bear poaching.  It’s that tie-in I’m interested in. After all, bear conservation really isn’t something big in NZ- we don’t really specialise in that.  And I was an arachnid guy anyway.  Bear farming is also something that gets a lot of people in the West excited. China has bear farms, where bile is extracted from the gall bladder periodically for medicine. And it does actually have pharmacological effects. It’s not the same as say, rhino horn, which is inert keratin.  The components of the bile is used to treat eye diseases, liver diseases and bacterial infections.

The meeting though was all about how to count black bears.  It turns out, this is very hard. The Chinese think there is about 28,000 wild black bears in China.  But the politic way to put it, is there are uncertainties about this number as their estimation technique has some flaws.

The big reason is that it is hard to count black bears.  They have learned to be very wary of people. This is perhaps unsurprising when locals regard you as a pest, a source of food, and a source of medicine, all rolled into one furry package.  So all the usual observation tricks, don’t work so well. There’s a very very low rate of records with camera traps.  Pandas (also in Sichuan) are relatively easy. Black bears are not only rarely captured, they tiny number hat are, are almost ever seen again in the same camera trap.  Thousands of days of camera trapping has occurred with a handful, or no, records in some locations.  They just don’t like being anywhere or close to anything, they associate with humans.  That extends beyond camera traps to all the varied lures and tricks that work elsewhere.

Estimating the numbers of black bears in China got a lot harder. We have a species that is actively trying to avoid being detected. It has become quite the dilemma.