Bears of the world – the Asian Black Bear

In the coming weeks, we would like to discover with you the different bear species of the world and to understand better if and how they are threatened and/or exploited by man. We will do it through a series of eight articles that will be published on our blog, one for each different species 🙂

Learning together, we’ll get to know better why bears are so important, and what can we do for them. Why bears? Here the answer in short, as an introduction:

Bears are present in America, Asia and Europe and never lived in Australia or Antarctica. As for Africa, just fossil bears have been found.

The species show lots of different aspects, ranging from size, diet, winter habits, etc, but let’s start from some of the common things of all species: bears are very intelligent and opportunistic animals with a very developed sense of smell, followed by hearing and seeing. They are born blind, toothless and hairless, weighing less than 900gr and they will need to stay with their mother for 1-3 years.

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For this first article we chose the Asian Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus):

This bear is also known as “moon bear” thanks to his large, white crescent-shaped mark appearing on his chest, and is one of the 6 species of bear that lives in Asia. Its habitat includes forests going from Afghanistan till Taiwan and Japan including Tibet and eastern-south Russia.

It’s a medium sized bear (adult male range from 100 to 200kg) and like most of other bears is omnivorous, with an opportunistic mainly vegetarian diet that changes due to the period of the year and the food availability.

Among its behaviors, it likes to climb and spends lots of time in a nest that it builds on a tree, unlike other bears, it can live in family groups (at least in captivity). As for the winter behavior, only some specimens of northern latitudes hibernate while others simply go to lower altitudes.

Its main predators in nature are tigers and leopards, but also pack of wolves and dholes can be a menace, especially for cubs.


Like with other bears, a common problem is the loss and fragmentation of habitat due to deforestation and destruction of the forests where it lives (even if in China and Japan its habitat is increasing).

The Moon Bear also has many other problems: it is hunted it for the skin and the paws (bear sport hunting is legal in Russia and Japan).

Furthermore, traditional Chinese medicine is very interested in lots of its parts, like bones and gall bladders, and for taking out the bile exist lots of Bear Farms legal in China and South Korea, where an estimated number of 8000-10000 bears are kept there (number of bears in illegal farms is of course not known). Here bears are kept in little cages with terrible conditions and usually can live to there up to 20 years!

All these bear parts are sold at a high prize and a big part of the trade is illegal.

Finally, due to its natural ability to stand on its hind legs, and its great learning ability in captivity, is often used for entertainment, such as dancing bears in India, fighting bears in Pakistan and circus bears in Vietnam, China and other parts of Asia. Often for these purpose bears are blinded and canine and claws are removed. A practice of drilling the nose (a very sensible part) for tiding them is also common.

There are lots of associations trying to aware public opinion and to save these bears. This is a documentary by one of them.

No rigorous population estimates exist for this species but the population has likely declined by 30-49% over the past 30 years.


Population trend: DECREASING


Bear constellations

Since ancient times, men have recognized the silhouette of the bear in the sky, in the Big Bear (Ursa Major) and Little Bear (Ursa Minor) constellations. Being able to see these shapes in the stary sky is a well-spread knowledge, quite often it’s one of the few constellations that people know.


According to the Greek myth, these bears in the sky are due to the fate of Callisto, one of Artemis’ virgin companions who used to live and hunt with the goddess. Zeus, in love with Callisto, used a stratagem to approach her and made her pregnant. As a punishment, she was turned into a she-bear by Artemis or by Hera, Zeus’ wife, according t o different versions of the myth. Arcas, Callisto’s son, grew up and one day met his mother in the forest and was ready to hunt her. To avoid this matricide, Zeus metamorphosed him as well into a bear and fixed them both in the heavens, as the Great Bear and the Little Bear.


In other cultures, the same constellations find their origins in different stories as well related to bears.

For the Eskimos, the constellations come from the story of a woman who met a group of bears living in their house in a human form but wearing their bearskins to go out and to hunt. The woman stayed some time with them, but finally went back to her own home, yearning for her husband. Although her promise to the Bear Men to keep their secret, she talked to her husband and, full of curiosity, he went to try to see them. Angry for her betrayal, one of the Bear Men found back the woman and bit her to death. To defend her, her husband’s dog attacked the bear but suddenly, both of the animals burnt bright and rise to the sky, as stars.


Other culture, other legends, the Algonkian Indians (North American tribes) identify as well the same stars as bears. It is thus believed that the Great Bear is composed of four stars pursued by seven hunters, and that a group of stars above the bear constitute its den.

This cosmic hunt appeared, in a different way, in the Asian story of the hunt of the spirit elk, Khelgen (Ursa Minor), by Mangi (Ursa Major), the bear and chief ancestor spirit whose tracks are the Milky Way. Khelgen is overtaken every year, at the end of the winter, and with her death the earth come into new life, with the beginning of spring and renewal of nature.

The bear, whose power for renewal after its winter sleep is linked to the regenerations of seasons, appears all year long in the sky, like an eternal sign of the its mystical role as a weather magistrate and prophet Never going under the horizon axis, the two constellations in the sky are seen as the wheels of the seasons and sometimes even considered as essential part of the functioning of the universe.


Sources: The Sacred Paw, The bear in nature, myth, and literature. Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders.

Bears Worldwide

During our times as volunteers in Kuterevo, we had of course already learnt some things about Brown Bears. However, there are seven other species of bears, spread around the world. We thought that it would be interesting to learn about these other bears, and to compare the situations of bears in other countries – in the wild and in refuges – with the situation in Croatia and in our refuge. We therefore decided to all get more informed about this topic during two weeks. We all specialized in some topics and presented them to each other, and we watched two documentaries, one about the Panda and one about the Asian Black Bear.

The two ´bear weeks´ were very interesting, but also somewhat depressing. Worldwide, bear numbers are decreasing almost everywhere due to human activities. The only well protected bear is the Panda. Does a bear species have to be nearly extinct, cute and fluffy, and an international icon of nature conservation before it finally gets the respect and protection it deserves…?

Marco presenting to the other volunteers

Marco presenting to the other volunteers

Bear Biology and Bears around the World

We started the bear weeks with an interesting presentation by Marco about the biology of all the eight different species of bears that exist. Later, we all got more informed about the situation of bears in different parts of the world, including their threats and conservation measures that are taken. Below, we give a summary of these presentations.

Biology and Presence

Evolution of different bear species

Evolution of different bear species

Giant Panda – Ailuropoda melanoleuca

Map: distribution of Giant Pandas (2009): several isolated spots in China
Source: IUCN Red List


Distribution of Giant Pandas (2009): several isolated spots in ChinaSource: IUCN Red List

Spectacled Bear – Tremarctos ornatus

Photograph: Barbara von Hoffman/Animals Animals-Earth Scenes

Map: Distribution of Spectacled Bears (2012): northern and western South America. Source: IUCN Red List



Sloth Bear – Melursus ursinus

Map: Distribution of Sloth Bears (2010): India and Sri Lanka. Source: IUCN Red List


Sun Bear – Helarctos malayanus

Map: Distribution of Sun Bears (2010): tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia. Source: IUCN Red List


American Black Bear – Ursus americanus

Photograph: Taken at Cincinnati Zoo. Photo by Greg Hume

Map: Distribution of American Black Bears (2010): Canada and US.


Asian Black Bear (Moon Bear) – Ursus thibetanus

Map: Distribution of Asian Black Bears (2010): mainly mountainous areas in Asia. Source: IUCN Red List.


Polar Bear – Ursus maritimus

Photograph:, author: Alan Wilson

Map: Distribution of Polar Bears (2006): around the North Pole.


Brown Bear – Ursus arctos

Map: Distribution of Brown Bears: North America, Europe, Asia


The Sun Bear, living in Southeast Asia, is the smallest of all bear species, with adult bears weighing just between 27 (females) and 70 kilos (males). Polar bears are the biggest bears. Male adults on average weight 720 kilos. When they stand on four feet, they measure about two meters from toes to shoulders! The weight of bears is very variable and depends a lot on their diet.

All bears have the biology of carnivores, although most species eat more than 50% vegetarian food. Polar bears are real carnivores, eating mainly seals, while Pandas eat almost only bamboo. Sloth Bears feed mostly on insects, and their mouths are pointy and suitable for getting insects from trees.

Brown Bears occur in a big part of the world, and their diet varies between different areas. In Croatia, the diet of Brown Bears consists for only about 5% of meat. The Brown Bears in Finland eat almost 30% meat. The Grizzly Bear in North America is a subspecies of the Brown Bear, and these bears eat 10 to 40% meat, including fat salmons.

Unlike the Croatian Brown Bears, most bear species don´t hibernate. Only some bears in cold areas go into hibernation during winter.


The numbers of most bear species (excluding Brown Bears) have been declining for many years. For example, both the number of Moon Bears and Sun Bears has decreased with more than 30% in the past three decades.

The main threats for bears are all related to people. Numbers of bears are declining because of hunting, poaching and destruction of their habitat. In many countries in Asia, bears are hunted for body parts which are by some said to be healthy to eat or to bring luck. Mainly Sun Bears are also hunted and kept in farms for their bile: the digestion fluid in their gall blatter, which is used as a traditional medicine.


Most bear species are classified as ´vulnerable´ on the Red List of the IUCN (link to, which means that there is a high risk of endangerment of the species in the wild. The Panda is listed as ´endangered´, because there are only several thousand individuals left in the wild, spread over isolated areas, and there is a considerable chance that the species will die out in the wild. The Brown Bear is the only bear species to be globally listed under ´least concern´ by the IUCN, even though their numbers have been decreasing considerably.

In most countries where threatened bears reside, the bears are protected by law and it is forbidden to hunt them. However, in many countries these laws are badly implemented. This is mainly the case in vast countries outside Europe.

The Panda is a special case. As it is much endangered and very mediagenic, there are many programs to help it, and there are severe punishments by the Chinese government for poaching. Panda habitat is being restored and different areas in which Pandas reside are being linked together. Also, Pandas which are raised in captivity are being released into the wild.

Bear Refuges around the World

We found it interesting to inform ourselves about other bear refuges in the world than Kuterevo, to learn about the situation of bears in refuges in those countries. Marco made a detailed presentation about 7 other refuges: 3 in Europe (Germany, Netherlands and Hungary), 2 in Southeast Asia (Cambodia and Indonesia), and 2 in North America (USA and Canada).

We discovered different ways of managing the bears in refuges, like in North America: after rehabilitating the orphan cubs, they release them in the wild. Even though there it is possible, in Croatia this action would be deadly for the bears: the forests here are fragmented and the bears have lost their natural instinct in the enclosure, and they would probably get close to humans again to look for food… then they would die or have to go back to a refuge.

To finish, most of these refuges are run by volunteers and we can stress two important aspects: the refuges propose educational workshops about bears, and work thanks to donations to finance for example new enclosures. The first aspect has, we hope, a direct link with the second: if we succeed to inform people about what bears need to live peacefully and how people should behave when they meet one of them, then maybe less bears will arrive in the refuges because they were too much in contact with humans. Then, we won’t need more enclosures anymore to welcome bears. Unlike zoos, we don’t wish to keep bears in enclosures, but work to make people understand that one of the best ways to love and respect nature, is to let it its wilderness, bears included.

Alice (France) and Kim (Netherlands)