Bear necessity

Posted: 9 April 2001

The world's bears are under increasing threat according to a report by WWF, Wanted Alive! Bears in the Wild. Almost all bear species have undergone dramatic population declines in recent decades mainly due to trade in their body parts, habitat destruction and human/animal conflict.

According to WWF's first-ever global review of the world's bears, habitat loss and hunting are having devastating effects on Asia's sloth, sun (honey) and black bears. It is possible that the sun bear is extinct in India and its presence in Bangladesh is doubtful. As numbers of Asian bears decline, increasing numbers of North and South American bears are being hunted to satisfy worldwide demand for bear parts.

South and Central American bears have also been seriously affected by logging, cattle ranching, and clearance for poppy and coca fields that feed the lucrative drug trade. The Mexican grizzly is now extinct while the spectacled bear struggles for survival mainly in the remaining montane forest along the spine of Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru.

In Europe, human/animal conflicts are causing serious problems for bears. Bears in Spain and Greece are unlikely to survive unless strict protection programmes are put in place. The authors of the report warn that France's few remaining bears are "doomed to extinction" unless drastic measures are taken soon.

However, lack of censuses and field studies usually make it very difficult to establish exact numbers of bears in the wild. "We know what is in the market place, but we don't know what is in the forest," said Elizabeth Kemf, Species Information Manager at WWF-International, one of the co-authors of the report.

The only bear population that still lives throughout its original range, and whose population in some areas has actually doubled is the polar bear. However, it faces new threats in the form of chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and the effects of global warming on its marine coastal habitat.

Thomas D. Mangelsen/© Still PicturesThe authors of the report emphasize that there is some good news for bears. They point out that in Austria, a six-year plan of bear reintroduction has resulted in an increase in bears. Most remarkable is a major shift in attitude by Austrian farmers and the general public to protect rather than persecute bears.

  • All bears appear in the Red List of Threatened Species of IUCN - The World Conservation Union, where the giant panda is listed as endangered.

    Elizabeth Kemf, Tel: (+41 22) 364 9424, Email: , or Olivier van Bogaert, Tel: (+41 22) 364 95 54, Email: