This past fall season 4 Natural Habitat expeditions ran in southwest China, and we had moon bear sightings on 3 of the 4 trips, and saw a total of eight indivduals! Before that, we only had two sightings in 4 years. This implies that we located a well protected habitat that is ideal for moon bears. Here is a summary and some information on the magnificent moon bears of the Minshan Range, and a hidden, enchanted place where they are thriving.
A moon bear, also known as Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), is similar to the North American black bear except they have far larger ears, a bushy mane around their necks, and a large moon shaped patch of white on their chest. Their thick neck fur likely evolved to help protect them from tiger attacks, as did their notorious hair trigger temper. To appreciate seeing these bears in the wild, one must understand how rare moon bears are. Moon bears have an incredibly vast range, from Siberia all the way to India, throughout China and including Taiwan and Japan. Imagine an area the size of the United States, but then realize that only 15.000 moon bears exist in the wild. The statistic is truly shocking.
It is a species highly targeted by hunting and poaching due to the demand for bear bile which is used in traditional chinese medicine for the treatment of liver and gall bladder conditions. Unlike other chinese medicine ingredients like rhino horn, bear bile actually does work. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which evolved in bears to help their carnivorous physiology consume and handle plant poisons (alkaloids) and utilize a more herbivorous diet. To combat poaching, and make money, the Chinese Government developed bear farms to produce bear bile. Sadly the ease of getting bear bile only expanded the consumer base, and the demand for the “pure, wild stuff” skyrocketed. Bear farming is amongst the cruelest human endeavors, as bears are kept in crush cages and their bile is milked with a catheter. You can read more about this, and the efforts of Animals Asia in rescuing these bears in an article I wrote several years ago here.
With my intimate knowledge of the plight of the wild moon bear in Asia, I figured I would never see a moon bear in the wild. When I saw my first one in 4 years I was “over the moon.” Here is a video I put together of one of the most exciting wildlife experiences in my life….
In a special wildlife reserve that we visit on our expeditions I have learned that a population of moon bears is doing well. Moon bear signs, according to my observations, has increased dramatically in the last 7 years. Assuredly these bears, and the rest of the wildlife, is very well protected in this reserve. A strong core of anti-poaching rangers has obtained a fierce reputation since the 1990’s, and now remote camera surveillance throughout the reserve makes poaching impossible. The habitat is unique, mostly because all of the locals were removed from the valleys in the late 70’s leaving the old farmland very productive for wildlife. Much of the forest is dominated by relic walnut and chestnut trees- a fantastic food source for the bears. Bears have plenty to eat to fatten up in the fall and make baby moon bears. I also think that the bears are losing their fear of people, so they are becoming easier to spot.
It was such a thrill to see moon bears in the wild. I am sure that this is a very special refuge for a species that faces a real possibility of extinction. This is another animal that benefits from the umbrella of giant panda conservation. It was fantastic for the locals to see our groups get so excited about wild moon bears, which I know reinforced their own appreciation of this species. In a world where wildlife faces so many challenges, it is great to see little successes such as this one, with the magnificent moon bears of the Minshan Mountain Range!