Asia’s neglected bears buckle as giant pandas hog conservation spotlight

Asia is home to five bear species: giant pandas, Asian black bears, sun bears, sloth bears and brown bears. Yet Giant pandas garner far more attention than the four other species.

In recent years, panda numbers have increased, and their geographical range has expanded, thanks to international and national efforts to save them. Image: Roderick Eime, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Serving as the mascot of a world-renowned conservation organisation, building diplomatic relationships between China and the world, playing protagonists in blockbuster movies — giant pandas have done it all. The public attention and adulation these animals garner make them star attractions at zoos and have helped pump billions into tailor-made conservation programs that have successfully brought the species back from the verge of extinction.

“They hit the lottery,” says Willam J. McShea, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who has studied giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)  in the wild. “They have gotten a lot of attention, and it has resulted in a turnaround for that population. That’s kind of rare in the conservation business.”

Often perceived as cuddly and cute, giant pandas hog the limelight with their iconic look — the black-and-white fur, big eyes and the button nose — instantly connecting with people’s emotions. “People go just like ‘it’s a baby bear,’” McShea says. “It’s always a baby, even when it’s 200 pounds [90 kilograms] in weight.”

Conservation efforts have successfully used this anthropomorphised discourse to gain traction for their cause. “Monetary investment in such universally pleasing campaigns are also much more significant than campaigns for other bears,” says Kartick Satyanarayan, CEO and co-founder of Wildlife SOS, a wildlife conservation organisation in India.

The giant panda has become a representative icon of China, and because of that, China has the political will to not let pandas go extinct.

Wong Siew Te, CEO and founder. Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

In recent years, panda numbers have increased, and their geographical range has expanded, thanks to international and national efforts to save them. The species’ conservation status on the IUCN Red List improved in 2016 from endangered to vulnerable, although it’s still considered a threatened species.

Other Asian bears haven’t been as successful in tapping such public admiration or conservation dollars.

Asia’s neglected bears

In addition to pandas, Asia is home to four other bear species: the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) is found from the Himalayas to East Asia, while the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) live in Southeast Asia; the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is native to the Indian subcontinent; and the brown bear (Ursus arctos) is found across Eurasia.

The brown bear’s conservation status varies across its range in Asia, from vulnerable to endangered to critically endangered, while the other three bear species are deemed vulnerable, according to the IUCN Red List.

Yet, scientists have only recently begun to study the geographical range and numbers of these other bear species. A recent study by the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group, of which McShea is a member, calls for increased monitoring of Asia’s bear species. Currently, there are no regular meticulous efforts to watch out for trends in their numbers.

Pandas are an exception: they are regularly monitored every 10 years using DNA analysis — the gold standard for wildlife monitoring. Population estimates for the other bear species rely on anecdotal information and expert opinions.

Asian bears face a multitude of threats, from habitat destruction to illegal hunting and poaching. In India, sloth bears have been exploited for more than 400 years as “dancing bears” by the nomadic Kalandar tribe. “Through underground trading, as many as 200 cubs annually would end up in the hands of the Kalandars,” says Satyanarayan, whose organisation has rescued and rehabilitated 628 of these “dancing bears” so far.

Sun bears, too, have been exploited for their commercial value. “Its meat is consumed by people, its gallbladder has been used as a traditional Asian medicine, and its claws and canines have been used as souvenirs and in traditional ceremonies,” says Wong Siew Te, CEO and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Malaysia.

With roads being built in many bear habitats, these animals have also become victims of roadkill. Yet, scientists do not have precise numbers on such deaths for most bears species, although anecdotal evidence exists. “There’s no study done at all,” Wong says.

Conservation efforts for pandas

China, the only country where pandas are found, has capitalised on the adulation pandas receive by portraying these bears as a national treasure. In the past 50 years, the country has used them to kindle diplomatic relationships with the outside world, and turned them into a revenue model. In 1979, WWF, whose logo was inspired by Chi Chi, a panda at London Zoo, became the first international conservation organisation to work with the Chinese government to conserve these bears.

“The giant panda has become a representative icon of China, and because of that, China has the political will to not let pandas go extinct,” Wong says.

The country has set up 67 dedicated panda reserves and spends about $255 million each year on their conservation. It has also designated pandas as a protected species, punishing anyone who engages in hunting or killing them with death.

But such well-funded and targeted conservation plans are virtually absent for the other bear species. “Nobody pays for other bears,” McShea says. “I can’t imagine someone saying ‘I’ll give you a million dollars if you give me an Asiatic black bear.’ No!”

Public perception of pandas also likely played a role in accelerating their conservation, researchers say. Pandas are non-aggressive in the wild and don’t get a bad rap for getting into trouble with people. Black bears, sloth bears and brown bears, however, are often in the news for attacking people, mauling livestock, raiding crops or destroying beehives.

Pandas, though, are generally content to eat bamboo all day. “This allows sentiment on pandas to remain positive, removing the gray areas often encountered in the conservation of other bear species,” Satyanarayan says.

Taking a leaf out of the panda conservation success

If there’s one thing that the panda’s conservation success shows, it’s that if there’s a will to save a species, and enough resources, conservation is possible.

“It’s not a matter of developing technology, it’s a matter of developing will power,” McShea says. “The knowledge base is there to conserve any of these species, and it’s a matter of some entity, be that a government or an NGO, to say ‘we’re going to do it.’”

But translating the template used for pandas to other Asian bears comes with caveats. For one, giant pandas live in a single country, which allows for laser-focused conservation efforts. And with the other bear species spread across borders, conservation becomes tricky.

“Asiatic bears cross international borders and live in many countries under a variety of legal frameworks for protection,” says Dana Wilson from Wildlife SOS. That makes it challenging for a single country to own its conservation efforts like China does with pandas. Sloth bears, most of them found in India, could take some hints, McShea says.

So far, sun bears are the only other Asian bear species that can brag of a focused action plan. In 2019, the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group put together a first-of-its-kind global conservation action plan focused on sun bears. It aims to eliminate their illegal exploitation, protect and restore their habitats and populations, use reliable monitoring methods to take stock of their numbers, and foster collaborations for conservation.

However, Wong, who has been actively involved in sun bear conservation for the past 24 years, says he’s skeptical about the plan as the implementation details are sketchy. “This is extremely ambitious and ideal,” he says, pointing out that implementing the plan runs up against the challenges of finding money and people. “But I really hope that each country will pick up and do everything that is written down.”

Saving and restoring bamboo forests was instrumental to the giant panda’s recovery. With most Asian bear species losing their habitats at an alarming pace, focusing on habitat restoration could go a long way to helping their numbers bounce back. In addition, public awareness, admiration, and strict enforcement of anti-poaching laws can help in their conservation, scientists say.

However, for now, such efforts rest heavily on nongovernmental organisations like Satyanarayan’s Wildlife SOS or Wong’s BSBCC, which are engaged in bear research, conservation, rehabilitation, and outreach. They call for conservation plans that include collaborations between biologists from various NGOs or institutions, and local governments and wildlife departments.

“From my experience in a number of Asian countries, it’s really going to have to be homegrown,” McShea says, “it’s not rocket science.”

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