Asian Black Bear, Ursus thibetanus

The Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), also known as the white-chested bear or the moon bear, is a species that holds a large range. This range includes northern areas of the Indian Subcontinent, most areas of the Himalayas, far eastern Russia, northeastern areas of China, Korea, and the Honshū and Shikoku islands near Japan. As is common to black bear species, the Asiatic black bear prefers a habitat within deciduous forests, mixed forests, deserts, and thornbrush forests. It can typically be found at elevation below 12,000 feet, choosing to move up to 11,480 feet in the Himalayas in the summer, and down to 4,920 feet in the winter. It was once thought to hold a larger range, which included France and Italy, but its range is now fragmented across the Asian continent.

The Asiatic black represents the first primarily arboreal bear species, spending most of its time in the trees. It is thought that this species has not changed much genetically from Old World bears, and may even be the divergent species between modern ursine bears and Old World bears. It is also thought to be the descendant of the smaller Ursus etruscus or larger Ursus minimus, both extinct species. This species is closely related to the American black bear both genetically and physically.

The Asian black bear can reach an average body length between 47 and 77 inches, with a tail length of up to 4.4 inches. Males are typically larger than females, reaching an average weight between 220 and 440 pounds, while females weigh between 143 and 198 pounds. In captivity, this bear can reach an average weight of 500 pounds. This species is similar in build to the brown bear, but is more slender. The skull of this species is small compared to other bears, but large compared to other animals. The Asian black bear has strong fore limbs that allow it to climb trees, although its hind limbs are typically weak. The front limbs are so strong that even if its back limbs are broken, it can climb trees with ease. This bear is known to walk on its hind legs often. The claws of this species are long and hooked, and allow the bear to dig and climb with skill. Its fur is shiny black on its entire body, and it is named for the white patch of fur that can be found on its chest.

The Asian black bear holds seven recognized subspecies that vary in color and location. Ursus thibetanus formosanus can be found in Taiwan and it lacks the white patch of fur on its chest. Ursus thibetanus laniger, which can be found in a few areas including the Himalayas, is smaller than other subspecies and holds a brighter patch of chest fur. Other subspecies, like Ursus thibetanus mupinensis, are lighter in color, and one subspecies, known as Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus, is reddish in color. The largest subspecies of the Asian black bear is the Ussuri black bear, which can be found on the northeastern Korean and China peninsula and in Southern Siberia.

The Asian black bear is thought to be able to breed with many other species of bear creating hybrids. One story, recorded in Monkeys on the Interstate by Jack Hannah, says that an individual captured in Sanford, Florida may have been the offspring of an escaped Asian black bear and a male American black bear. Another incident was recorded in Some notes on hybrid bears, written by Scherren and published in 1907, and stated that an Asian black bear successfully mated with a sloth bear a species that it is related to. In one Venezuelan zoo, an Asian black bear was placed in the same enclosure as a spectacled bear and the two individuals created many hybrid offspring. In Cambodia, one individual was captured near the Mekong River, which was thought to be a hybrid between an Asian black bear and a sun bear.

The Asian black bear is typically active during the day, but it appears to be active during the night in human populated areas. Unlike other species of bear, it may live in small familial groups containing one adult male and female and two litters of cubs. This species will spend at least half of its life in the trees resting, eating, hibernating, sunning, and avoiding enemies. In some cases, older individuals may become too heavy to climb trees. When spending long periods in the treetops, these bears will build a nest like structure underneath themselves, which can be seen from the forest floor. Although most subspecies of this bear do not hibernate, those found in northern areas and pregnant individuals tend to make burrows in tall trees, caves, thickets, or sunny slopes.

Hibernation lasts through the months of November to March. The Asian black bear can make a variety of vocalizations including roars, whines and grunts. It will hiss when alarmed or when delivering a warning, and will often scream when participating in a fight. If two bears approach each other without fighting, both will emit a “tut tut” noise, and when courting, both males and females can be heard making clicking sounds.

The breeding season for the Asian black bear in Sikhote-Alin occurs between the months of June and August. Pregnant bears will enter hibernation early and emerge late with a liter between one and four cubs, although two is the most common. The cubs weigh only thirteen ounces at birth and will gain a small amount of weight by nursing while their mother hibernates. Cubs will be weaned at up to 29 months, but may not leave their mother until 36 months of age. Females typically produce their first litter at three years of age. The average lifespan of this species in the wild is about 25 years, but one captive individual died at 44 years of age.

The diet of the Asian black bear consists of both plant materials and meat. Its diet includes insects, mushrooms, invertebrates, seeds, fruits, grasses, honey, bark, grains, and carrion. This species eats more plant material than brown bears but less than panda bears. Black bears do not have a specialized diet, but will feed on whatever is available in their area. This opportunistic feeding style is not always successful, however. When food is abundant, it is easy for these bears to consume large amounts of what is in the area, storing fat for the winter in the process. When food is not abundant, the bears may hibernate or move into valleys where larvae, hazelnuts, and rotting wood can be found. During late spring to early summer, fruit or green vegetation is the main food source for the Asian black bear, and during late summer to early fall, the bears will move into the trees to eat fruits and vegetation that grows higher up. This species eats more animal material than many other bear species, regularly hunting ungulates like serow, wild boars, muntjacs, water buffalo, and domesticated livestock.

The Asian black bear does not fall prey to larger predators because there are none in its range, but can be killed by leopards, tigers, and packs of wolves. This species typically overpowers Amur leopards in conflicts in densely forested areas, but in open areas, the leopard typically wins. Amur leopards and occasionally Eurasian lynxes prey upon Asian black bear cubs. Tigers are the major threat to Asian black bears, excluding humans, and Russian hunters often come across the remains of bears that have been attacked by tigers. If the bear is not killed by the tiger, it may escape into the treetops and wait for its foe to leave. Sometimes, the tiger does not actually leave and will attack the bear again once it is back on the ground. Tigers will only attack black bears that weigh less than 130 pounds, so adults that are over five years of age are usually safe from predation. These bears may steal the tiger’s kill, although there have not been many recorded occurrences of this.

The Asian black bear holds a range that overlaps with those of many other bear species, including brown bears in far eastern areas of Russia, sun bears in Southeast Asia, and sloth bears in southern and central India. Himalayan brown bears prefer to avoid the Asian black bear, but Ussuri brown bears have been known to attack.

The exact population number of the Asian black bear is not known. Japan has given an estimate between eight and fourteen thousand bears, while Russia estimates a population between five and six thousand bears. Other estimates include one thousand bears in Pakistan and seven to nine thousand in India. Estimations for the populations in China number between fifteen and forty-six thousand bears, although the government has given an estimate of twenty-eight thousand. There is not enough scientific data to support these estimates. Three subspecies of the Asian black bear are located in China in different areas in the region. In Russia, this bear’s range is quite large reaching the shore of the Amur, but within the Ussuri krai its range is limited to Manchurian type forests.

The Asian black bear has appeared in literature and folklore in many areas of its range. Japanese culture associates the Asian black bear with the mountain spirit yama no kami. It is also characterized in many forms including the “mountain father” or yama no oyaji, the “mountain uncle” or yama no ossan, the “mountain man” or yamaotoko, and a mother and her beloved child. Because these black bears are solitary, they are sometimes known as the “lonely person” or sabishigariya. In lowland Japan, these ears do not appear often in folklore, but does appear in folklore from upper areas of Japan due to their economic value.

In Niigata, Kituarahara-gun folklore speaks of the Asian black bear receiving its white patch of fur when yama no kami, or the mountain spirit, presented the bear with an amulet wrapped in silk. After removing the amulet, the bear gained a new white marking. The Asian black bear appears in Hindu mythology as Jambavantha, Jamvanta, or Jambavan. Jambavantha is said to have lived between Treta Yuga and Dvapara Yuga, and appears in the epic called Ramayana, in which it helps Rama find his wife, Sita, who was captured by Ravana. The Asian black bear appears in The Life of Pi, written by Yann Martel, when the protagonist’s father describes the species as one of the most dangerous creatures in his zoo.

The Asian black bear, like the sun bear, is easy to train and is often kept as pets or used in entertainment. This species is among the most often used in circus acts because of its capacity to learn. Bears are commonly kept as pets in China and Korea, and can be fed a wide variety of foods including cassava, grains, rice, maize, sweet foods, animal fat, and pumpkins. In China, it is believed that milking the gall bladders of these bears can bring good fortune.

Although the Asian black bear is typically shy, it is known to be more dangerous to humans than the Eurasian brown bear and the American black bear. One expert asserts that this behavior is an adaption that allows the bear to defend itself better against tigers. There are reports that one hospital receives dozens of bear victims each year. It is thought that these bears will stand on their hind legs when attacking, typically biting the legs and arms before biting the head. There are no records of Asian black bears attacking humans in Taiwan or Russia, but attacks have been increasing in India and in the western and northwestern areas of the Himalayas. Recent attacks have occurred in Langtang and Junbesi National Parks in Nepal ad in neighboring areas. Between the years of 1979 and 1989, there were nine reported deaths from black bear attacks. Two attacks, which occurred in 2009 in different areas, consisted of a black bear encountering groups of people, and resulted in the death of an entire group of six people and two individuals in a group of four.

It has been found that the majority of attacks occur when a human surprises the bear, especially near its den or when eating. This species is considered more dangerous than brown bears because they occur in less open areas, making it more difficult for the black bears to know that humans are in the area.

The Asian black bear is threatened by a variety of factors in different areas of its range. In China, habitat destruction caused by deforestation is threatening these bears. This threat is most prominent in the Ganshu, Sichuan, and Shaanxi provinces, where twenty-seven forestry initiatives have been created between the years of 1950 and 1985. Because of these human developments, the range of bears in this area was reduced to one fifth of its original size between the 1940’s and the 1990’s. This habitat loss has caused the Asian black bears in these provinces to face other issues like fragmentation and a limited gene pool.

The decrease in Asian black bear populations in China have also occurred due to overhunting. The gall bladders, paws, and cubs are prized and highly valued. This species is thought to be a pest to crops, and so harvests are common. In the decade between 1950 and 1960, about one thousand bears were killed each year. Hunting declined slightly by the 1970’s and 1980’s due to a decrease in price on bear furs, but hunting is still a major threat to the species in that area of its range.

Poaching of Asian black bears also occurs in Japan, but authorities do not often stop this threat. The bears are thought of as pests in this area, but trapping has become a more popular means of removing problem bears. Habitat destruction is also a threat in Japan. In India, overhunting is the main threat to this species. In Vietnam, hunting and habitat destruction threaten the Asian black bear. Hunting of this species does not occur in Taiwan, but the bears can be caught in steel traps meant for wild boars. Habitat loss in this area is not a major threat, although complications have risen in the transference of lowland hill country to the government and it is thought that this, as well as road development, may cause habitat destruction in the future. Black bears in South Korea are threatened by bear bile farming, a process in which the bears are farmed for their resources in traditional Asian medical practices. Bile farming is known to be inhumane.

The Asian black bear has been protected in Russia 1983, but poaching is becoming and increasing issue. The demand for bear parts in Asia is so high that poaching in Russia in order to sell the parts in the Asian market is becoming common. It is though that many “loggers” of Korean and Chinese origin are only posing and take part in the illegal trade of Asian black bear goods from Russia to Asia, and there reports from Russian sailors that support this claim. The timber industry in Russia has been increasing for over thirty years, and this is causing a large amount of habitat loss to the bears in that region. These bears prefer to hibernate in hollow trees, but many of these trees are being cut down, forcing the bears to hibernate in areas that make them more vulnerable to tigers and hunters.

The hunting of the Asian black bear for sport has occurred throughout its range for many years, but it is now only conducted illegally in Japan and Russia. The known number of poached bears in Russia is between seventy-five to one hundred bears per year, but it is though that up to five hundred can be killed. In 2004, sport hunting of this species was illegalized in Russia, but one hunting group claims to be able to help hunters catch at least four bears for a large sum of money. These hunters include people from The United States, Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Poland, and Finland.

After Buddhism was introduced into Japan, some hunters devised a plan that would better suit the policies of not killing animals that the religion upholds. Locals in the Kiso area of the Nagano Prefecture no longer allowed hunting of these bears, and other locals created rituals that would appease the spirits of the killed bears. Traditions of hunters began to change, and one says that bears found without the white patch of fur are sacred and cannot be hunted. A similar tradition held in the Akita Prefecture stated that these bears were also sacred, and they were known by Matagi hunters as minaguro, meaning all black, or as munaguro, meaning lack chested. These bears in both regions were known to carry spirits called yama no kami, and if one of them were accidentally shot or killed, the hunter in question would give the ear to yama no kami and cease hunting for the rest of his life.

The traditions held by the Matagi people also said that if a bear were killed in the mountains it would bring a bad storm, suggesting that animal spirits were linked to weather patterns. These people would typically hunt bears before or after hibernation in the fall, spring, and summer seasons, when one group would scare there bear into upper regions where another group would wait to kill it. Once a bear was killed, a ritual that could last up to two weeks was conducted, in which the people would pray for the spirit of the bear. In many Japanese areas, hunters would call bear hunts kuma taiji, meaning bear conquest. The term taiji was used when speaking of the slaying of demons or monsters.

In Taiwan, the Taroko, Bunun, and Atayal tribes consider the actions of the Asian black bear to be so similar to those of a human that killing the bears is considered murder. If a bear is killed, it could bring disease, misfortune, and death to the one who killed it. It is known by the Bunun people as Aguman or Duman, which means devil, and if a hunter accidentally traps or kills a bear, it must be cremated within a cottage that the hunter builds by hand. The hunter must remain in the cottage alone until the harvest of millet is completed, because it is thought that if this does not occur, the crops will become black and ruined.

Within the Tungpu area, Asian black bears are thought to be “third category” animals. This means that their actions and habits are restricted as far as can be from humans, so if one comes into a human populated area, it is thought to be a bad omen. If this occurs, the humans will either kill the bear or move into a different area. Although hunting of these black bears is permitted by the Paiwan and Rukai people, the Rukai believe that killing the bear will result in ill fortune. For this reason, they do not allow children to consume bear meat and it is not allowed inside any homes.

Asian black bears are hunted not only for their organs or paws, but also for their fur, but the quality of the fur varies and is typically greasy. Experts agree that the fur is greasy, and this has been noted in a few written works. One expert wrote that this bear provides better fur, meat, and fat than the brown bear. Asian black bears in British India are hunted only for the grease from their fur. Bears that lived near human settlements were most often hunted in this area. In China, this species has been hunted since the Stone Age, because the bile within the bear’s stomach is highly valued in traditional medicine practices. Other parts of these bears are used in medicine, like the bones and fat. In Vietnam, Asian black bears can provide are large range of products and each bear is worth $1,500 to 2,250 U.S. dollars.

The Asian black bear has been thought of as a pest in many areas of its range for many years. In lowland Himalayan areas, farmers in the past would place tall towers into their fields, and people would keep watch over the crops during the night. The guards would beat on drums periodically, to make sure no bears would enter the fields, but eventually, the bears became familiar to the drums and would raid the crops despite the farmer’s efforts.  These bears cause damage to crops in isolated areas of Japan, eating different foods in spring, summer, and fall. In the spring months, these bears consume bamboo shoots, plums, corn, and watermelon during the summer, and sweet potatoes, persimmons, and rice in the fall. They cause significant damage to large crops like pumpkins or watermelons because they prefer to eat the seeds, leaving the meat and preventing farmers from using the seeds for future crops. The bears can damage timber productions because they strip the trees of bark to eat the sap.

The Asian black bear is not only a pest to plant crops, but also to livestock. In Bhutan, one study found that eight percent of 1,375 livestock animals killed were prey to a black bear. The highest number of kills occurred in the summer and fall seasons, when plant crops were being harvested. Because of this, it is thought that livestock is hunted when plant materials are scarce.

The Asian black bear and its subspecies are protected by law in many areas of their range. In China, it is protected from poaching by China’s National Protection Wildlife Law, which does not allow hunters to kill or capture the bears without the proper permit. In Vietnam, Decision 276/QD, 276/1989 does not allow hunting or exploitation of this species, and it is listed in the Red Book of Vietnam as an endangered species. In Taiwan, the Formosan black bear subspecies is listed as an endangered species under the Natural and Cultural Heritage Act, and was later classified as a Conserved Species Category I. It appears in Russia’s Red Data Book as an “infrequent species” and this makes it illegal to hunt them there. Despite this, experts in Russia suggest that hunting of this species should be legalized.

The Asian black bear in India is protected by both Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act and the Red Data Book in Appendix I of CITES, where it is listed as Vulnerable. However, it is difficult for authorities to protect the bears from poaching, because it is rare to have witnesses when prosecuting suspected poachers. This is even more difficult because there are no Wildlife Forensic Labs to trace the origins of any confiscated bear remains. India borders many other regions, many of which occur in mountainous areas, and these include Pakistan, China, Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. It is difficult for authorities to maintain laws in all of these areas.

In 1991, Asian black bear populations from five areas were listed as endangered by the Environmental Agency in the Japanese Red Data Book. These areas include West-Chugoku and East-Chugoku, Kii, Kyushu, and Shikoku. In 1995, two other populations located in the Shimokita and Tanzawa were listed as endangered. Besides these efforts, there have not been many other actions taken to protect the bears in this area due to a lack of information and effective conservation means. The Asian black bear species as a whole appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Vulnerable.”

Image Caption: cub on tree. Credit: Abu0804/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)