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A Disappearing National Treasure: The Extinction of the Formosan Black Bear

Black Bear Taiwan Formosan Art

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ~ Mohandas Gandhi

A BELOVED MASCOT

The Formosan black bear (Ursus Thibetanus Formosansus) – Taiwan’s largest predator and land animal – is endemic to Taiwan and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The “Moon bear,” aptly named after its distinctive white crescent marking on its chest, has sat majestically atop Taiwan’s ecosystem throughout the ages. But in recent years, its reign has been usurped by the encroachment of modern man, who has continuously illegally poached the bears, severely exploited them, and driven them from their natural habitat. Hence, these bears have been pushed to near extinction.

This information might come as a shock to some Taiwanese people, whose various nods of admiration demonstrate how much they value this animal. The Formosan black bear was voted the most representative wildlife of Taiwan in 2001 in a nationwide voting campaign conducted by the Taipei Zoo. Even the La New Bear professional baseball team features the black bear as its logo.

Yet despite public affections, it is likely that within our lifetimes, the Formosan black bear will become little more than the stuff of aboriginal legends, a cute mascot on a baseball jersey, or a marketing brand for the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau.

A fully-grown adult male in all his glory. Photo via Philadelphia Zoo

A fully-grown adult male in all his glory. Photo via Philadelphia Zoo

THE FOOTPRINTS FADE AWAY

Black bears are characteristically shy, peaceful animals who pose little threat to humans. They live mostly on a vegetarian diet – fruit, nuts, leaves and shoots – and will hunt the occasional animal or forage the prey caught in human traps. They are loners in the wild who use their unparalleled sense of smell and keen eyesight to avoid other animals and evade human detection. In spite of their clumsy and plump appearance, they are expert tree climbers and build their nests in the canopies to protect their young from danger.

Previous records suggest the Formosan black bears were widely distributed across the island from low to high elevations. Two thirds of Taiwan is still covered in forest – either oak, mixed oak, or broadleaf forest – all of which are great habitats for bears, lending an estimated capacity of a 6,000 to 7,000 bear population.

This island has been a generous provider for this species throughout history. Yet today, the population of the Formosan black bear is estimated to be between 200 – 600 bears, a far cry from the capabilities of this island’s natural habitat.

“It is a dramatic change from the Japanese colonial era,” said Darren Lee, a previous employee of the Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association (TBBCA). “Formosan black bears could be found everywhere in the forest above 500 meters just about a century ago.”

Hwang Mei-hsiu, an IUCN Specialist of Asiatic Black Bears, believes a population of at least 2,000 bears is necessary for maintaining a sustainable and healthy population. The ultimate goal for the TBBCA is to reach this number, but conservationists are having an ever harder time finding traces of them – either footprints, claw marks on trees or feces. The bears have retreated higher elevations into the rocky terrain of the mountains away from the disturbances of humans.

Taiwan has already lost the clouded leopard, another endemic species, to the annals of history – is it willing to let the black bear follow the same devastating fate?

Formosan Clouded Leopard Extinct

The Formosan Clouded Leopard has already been declared officially extinct. Image via Treehugger

A DIRTY TALE OF MURDER AND EXPLOITATION

The Formosan black bears are part of the much larger Asiatic bear family that spans most of southern Asia from the Indian Himalayas to Vietnam, China, and Taiwan. Across these nations, there are various dangers that threaten this species including human invasion and destruction of their natural habitat, illegal hunting and poaching, or inadvertently getting caught in traps set for other animals.

But it is important to address one of the bears’ more powerful adversaries: traditional Chinese medicine. Currently, bears are being captured and sold onto the black market where their body parts are harvested for use in traditional Chinese medicine. This motivation to capture and kill one of these animals is deeply rooted in history.

In traditional Han Chinese culture, bears have economic value from head to toe. As claimed by the Ben Cao Gang Mu – the largest compilation of traditional Chinese medicine texts – bear gallbladders, fat, bones, meat, and blood can all be useful ingredients for different medicines. Bears are especially valued for their gallbladder and bile which are said to treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries, from headaches to liver ailments.

Demand for traditional Chinese medicine is rising as an increasingly affluent population associates wildlife products with status, reported Rachel Nuwer in an article she wrote in 2011. According to the article, animal parts from more than 1,500 species are used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, and some of them, like tiger bones, rhino horns, and bear gallbladders, have contributed to significant declines in species.

This high demand for bear parts in the traditional Chinese medicine market has also lead to so-called ‘bear-farms’ to sprout up across Asia where bears are kept, often for their  lifetime, small metal cages. The bears are ‘milked’ of their bile multiple times a day from a permanent hole cut through their abdomen into their gallbladder, which can lead to nasty infections and cancers. This is especially true in China where thousands of kilos of bile are harvested from 10,000 to 20,000 farmed bears, reported Nuwer. These ‘farms’ are more like factories and are disturbingly inhumane.

Today, bear bile harvesting is still legal in China, reported Nuwer. Not only is it legal, some ‘bear farms’ even offer recreational tours that open the facilities up to tourists, where the clients can see what they pay for, so to speak.

bile farm black bear china traditional chinese medicine

A bile farm in China. Image searches reveal far more disturbing results of tortured and maimed animals. Image via One Green Planet

“About 180 manufacturers in China produce the 123 different types of products containing bear bile, which is effectively used to break down gallstones and help with chronic liver complaints, though synthesized drugs produce better results than bile,” reported Nuwer.

There is little reason for the use of bear bile in medicines when there are over 50 herbal alternatives for bile, and the active ingredient in bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, can easily be synthesized in a lab. There are even signs of hope that one of the largest providers of gallbladder bile medicines, Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, may consider switching to alternatives in the near future, as recently reported by the Guardian.

But this doesn’t mean the market is slowing anytime soon. According to Advocacy Britannica, “although a gallbladder might fetch $50 or $100 at the first point of sale, its ultimate purchase price on the black market could range into the thousands of dollars. Bear gallbladders can be as valuable by weight as gold or illicit drugs.” As a result of these profitable circumstances, illegal hunting and selling of bears and their parts continue to be a problem in Taiwan.

Other threats continue to plague the bears’ continued existence on the island. Hunters lay metal traps or snares to catch other animals such as the wild boar, which is considered a delicacy in many restaurants and food markets. Unfortunately, the black bears are often the victims of these indiscriminate hunting methods, and conservationists regularly come across bears whose paws are missing toes from the metal jaws of a trap.

“Nowadays, most of the hunters use traps or snares to catch herbivores in the first instance, but sometimes these things catch bears as well,” said Lee. “The hunters are then most likely afraid of facing charges due to catching animals under legal protection. Those ‘hunters’ usually kill the bears that were caught right away and take back their traps.”

“Some hunters sell the bears for money,” said Lee. “In 2010, a restaurant in Chiayi was caught selling bear meat. The owner said he bought the bear from a hunter for 170,000 NTD.”

Along with poaching and illegal hunting, the bears’ natural habitat has been depleted over time. According to a report compiled by the Japan Bear Network, “loss of habitat caused by rapid human development and exploitation, fueled by an increase over recent decades in market demand for bear parts, has constrained bears to rugged and steep terrain far from human activity.”

As the largest mammal in Taiwan, the Formosan black bear requires a lot of space to move around. The Formosan Black Bear Research Team once followed the path of a female bear through radio tracking and found that her footsteps covered 50 square kilometers. Under normal conditions, male bears probably travel over an even wider area, Lee Kuan-hsin wrote in a report in 2003.

“Mountainous areas below 2,500 meters in western Taiwan have all been developed, and roads built into the mountains have allowed tourists and hunters to enter formerly untamed areas. This kind of ‘traffic development’ has exacerbated the hunting problem and has also divided spacious wildlife habitats into small areas. Black bears have been forced to eke out a living in these fragmented areas, with the food scarcity badly affecting reproduction and the survival rate of bear cubs,” said Kuan-hsin.

A FORGOTTEN LEGACY

Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes once lived in relative harmony alongside

baby black bear cubs playfight

Two baby cubs play. Photo via ABC News

the black bear for thousands of years. There were strict taboos that surrounded the killing of a black bear. If a Bunan tribesman killed a bear, he was required to stay in the mountains until the millet harvest was finished. Other tribes believed killing a bear had its price as well, such as bringing disease and famine to their people. These beliefs kept the natural ecological system in balance, but with the arrival of colonists from various nations around the world, the commercial exploitation of both the bear and its natural habitat began.

On their website, the TBBCA poses a chilling question: “If black bears disappear from Taiwan’s mountains and forests, how will we explain this to future generations?” It will be the future generations that will put the blame on those people today who allowed this precious treasure to disappear, says the association.

Black Bear Conservation Taiwan Association

Hwang Mei-hsiu pictured with a radio-collared black bear. Photo via TA News

Members of the TBBCA are hard at work to keep this from happening. They carry out monthly excursions into the mountains to undertake vital scientific research that allows them to ascertain the biological status of the bears and the threats facing them. This is no easy task.  Currently, “[researchers] have to spend at least 10 days per month in the mountains,” said Kuan-hsin. During this time, they set up bear traps, anesthetize the bears they catch, put radio collars on their necks, and weigh and examine them. The radio collars allows them to track the bear’s movements and roaming patterns.

Along with performing scientific research, the TBBCA tries to help spread awareness of the plight of these creatures and the threats against them such as developers, poachers, hunters and the pitfalls of the TCM market. Despite their valiant efforts, the organization has struggled to drum up the financial support from the Taiwanese government necessary to achieve their goals.

When compared to the global campaign which props up the panda bear, the financial efforts to support the black bear are comparably small. The Taiwanese government has spent around 43 million yuan – on average 2 million per year – on bear conservation over the last 20 years. The Japanese government, on the other hand, spends a near equivalent 43 million yuan in just a single year on their own black bear conservation projects, states the Taiwan Environmental Information Center on their website.

“Since they are on the top of the food chain, a healthy bear population signifies a healthy wildlife and ecosystem as well,” said Lee. The black bear represents the pinnacle of a wider conservation effort to protect Taiwan’s unique and diverse natural environment.

Taiwan is a nation which presents itself to the world as a model  island of green sustainability and preservation, and yet the fact that the Formosan black bear has reached the extremity of near extinction has been hidden from sight. Yet in an alternative paradigm, what could be a better way of backing this claim than the saving of its most valued creature?

male adult black bear taiwan conservation

The Majestic Taiwanese Black Bear, a fully-grown adult. Image via Rough Guides

A DARING PLAN OF SALVATION

What can Taiwan do to avoid the Formosan Black Bear being consigned to the ever growing list of species whose extinction humans are directly responsible for?

According to the Asiatic Black Bear Conservation Action Plan laid out by the IUCN Species Survival Commission, in Taiwan the most pressing matters to account for will be greater enforcement of the laws against poaching and hunting, in particular strictly controlling the usage of the steel jawed traps that hunters use to catch wild boar within designated areas and completely banning them in allocated bear habitats. While the laws in place are fairly comprehensive, the TBBCA would like to see them revised and strengthened.

“The Taiwanese government needs to enforce the Wild Animal Protection Act thoroughly,” said Lee. “It’s really easy to find illegal metal traps in the wild forest, but no one seems try to stop the manufacturing of them. There are also not enough wildlife officers in Taiwan, and their workload is too great for them to handle.” The wildlife officers Lee refers to would enforce the fines and punishments more strictly and could help ensure the sale of bear body parts on the black market is no longer a lucrative trade.

The Action Plan states that a wider space needs to be carved out for black bears to live undisturbed by the encroachments of human development. In regards to the natural environment, the government would need to modify highway construction and land use, thinking carefully about how it would impact the bears’ habitat.

Furthermore, the research being carried out by TBBCA volunteers needs to be expanded with funding initiatives. Their current research programmes are vitally important for helping conservationists to build a greater understanding of the basic biology of the bears and the threats facing them in the wild.

It is essential that public awareness is raised as to the negative effects that using gallbladders has on the bear population. According to Action Plan, “the traditional use of the bear gall bladder in Chinese medicine should be stopped at best, or strictly controlled at least. People who use these products need to be informed and educated that their conduct could endanger the bear population. On the other hand, alternatives or substitutes for bear gall bladder need to be addressed and developed. The goal should be to provide good educational material to help users change their behavior.”

Another powerful tool for change is offering better education in schools and to the public. “Environmental and wildlife protection is not a big part of textbooks and school curriculum,” said Lee. “People lack the knowledge of our wildlife and animals.” The Action Plan states that professionals and the general public need to be educated, especially hikers and mountain climbers, about the negative impacts caused by human interactions with bears.

In order to help better the conservation efforts of the TBBCA and other organizations, there needs to a be a radical awakening as to the severity of the threats facing the bears before it is too late. Taiwan should take a moment to appreciate that this majestic creature is still roaming its terrains. It is time for compassion to replace indifference and for this animal to live once again in harmony with the island it, too, calls home.

If you would like to participate and learn more about the conservation efforts for the Formosan Black Bears, please visit these websites and get involved!

Kyle Kivett is a freelance journalist and writer. He enjoys covering a variety of topics but takes special pride when he can give a voice to those without one. Kyle is currently living in Taipei, Taiwan where he likes to explore the beautiful mountains, beaches, and wildlife around the tropical island and Southeast Asia. Reach him at kyle.kivett@gmail.com.

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