Save the Bear

A sun bear displays her impressive tongue.

May 16 to 22, 2011, is Bear Awareness Week, and we hope you’ll join us in celebrating these amazing animals. While you learn more about bears, please take the time to reflect upon the challenges all bears face in wild and learn all that you can about what you can do to make a difference to help conserve bears. At the San Diego Zoo, we are passionate about bear conservation, and we’re excited to share with you our current research efforts, as well as an overview of the challenges that free-ranging populations of bears face around the world.

The bear family (Ursidae) currently consists of eight species, seven of which are conservation-dependent species (the sole exception:  the American black bear). Each conservation-dependent species inhabits a very different habitat, has generally evolved to exploit a particular resource niche (which may change seasonally), and has evolved a number of striking adaptations that have enabled them to take advantage of the unique foods they eat and the habitats in which they live.

While each bear species has evolved, over thousands of years, to cope with the various natural challenges to survival found in their environment, they all face extreme challenges to their persistence in the wild due to the impacts of human populations and the rapid pace of environmental change due to human activities. While humans impact the environment in a variety of ways, ultimately it is one single factor that poses, by far, the greatest threat to the persistence of all wild bear populations: HABITAT LOSS. From great polar bears roaming the vast Arctic sea ice to diminutive sun bears dwelling in the tropical rain forests of Southeast Asia, suitable habitat is being lost or fragmented at an alarming pace. Climate change, resource extraction, and human population growth have all contributed to habitat losses. But, while these challenges may seem daunting, the reality is that if we can change our habits, reduce our carbon footprint, and make conscientious changes in how we buy and use products, we can reverse these trends, and we can save the world’s bears.

Historically, hunting was the greatest threat to all bear species. Unregulated hunting had dramatic impacts on population numbers for bears worldwide, especially in the first half of the 20th century, when a lack of regulation was coupled with enhanced access to bears (through motorized vehicles) and more efficient weapons. In the 1970s, the impact of hunting on some species, such as the polar bear, impelled wildlife biologists and managers to develop science-based harvest quotas that, over the years, served to stabilize polar bear populations. However, the unregulated “take” of wild bears continues in some parts of the world, and bear parts and the pet trade have continued to take their toll on a number of Asian bear species (except the giant panda).

Just as the impact of hunting on most bear populations was minimized through the efforts of people, so, too, can the impacts of habitat loss and climate change be reduced. We can all make a difference, and the first step is to get passionate about bears and bear conservation. A great place to start? The San Diego Zoo!

Come visit Kalluk, Chinook, and Tatqiq (polar bears); Montana, Scout, and Blackie (brown bears); Marcella and Francis (sun bears); Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Yun Zi (giant pandas); Houdini and Tommy (Andean bears); and Ken and Bhutan (sloth bears). They are all great bear ambassadors. After visiting the wide array of bears at the San Diego Zoo, I have no doubt you’ll be inspired to turn off your TV, ride your bike (or walk) instead of driving, and carefully read product labels!

Find out more about the bear research the San Diego Zoo is actively engaged in…

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Love is in the Air.

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