The bear necessities of wildlife protection

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2007, 12:00am

Our affection for teddy bears, it seems, does not stop us from threatening the real ones, unless they are pandas. But even so, pandas in some parts of China will be in dire straits this winter.

Conservationists have warned this week that the animals in Sichuan are facing a food shortage. This year, an unusually high number of bamboo plants in the province are flowering. Unfortunately, this happens just before the plants die.

Usually, the animals would migrate to other bamboo forests. However, human activities have encroached on their habitats. It takes 10 to 30 years for a bamboo forest to grow back.

Mainland scientists are now warning that the potential famine could be worse than a similar bamboo shortage in the 1980s that caused hundreds of pandas to die.

The province has more than 1,200 wild giant pandas - about three-quarters of the mainland's population in the wild.

'Even though some people have claimed that panda populations are on the rise, we still consider them endangered because too much uncertainty exists to justify changing their status to 'vulnerable',' the World Conservation Union said in a statement. 'It would be unwise to assume that, in less than 10 years under the new habitat-improvement policies in China, panda populations could have dramatically increased.'

Pandas are the most endangered of eight bear species. However, five other species have been listed as vulnerable, according to the latest list compiled by the union, a global consortium of green groups and government agencies.

The conservation union deploys thousands of scientists to track the threats all land mammals face around the world. According to its report this week, only the brown bear and the American black bear are not under threat - for now. The other six are either vulnerable or endangered. Polar bears, described as marine mammals, have been classified as vulnerable since last year. This is, in part, due to global warming and the disappearance of icebergs.

But even brown bears may not be out of the wood, so to speak. Although large numbers inhabit Russia, Canada, Alaska and some parts of Europe, the union said that very small, isolated and highly vulnerable populations exist in southern Europe and central and southern Asia. However, grizzly bears, a type of brown bear, are well-protected in North America.

Humans have affectionately named two bear species moon and sun bears, yet the way they have been treated in our hands is anything but kind. Both species are found across Southeast Asia.

The sun bear, a species of small bear, is the latest to join the vulnerable list. Its population is estimated to have fallen by one-third, to 10,000, over three decades. Hunting and human encroachment are the main reasons for their predicament.

But they may still fare better than moon bears. Moon bears make up most of the caged bears in mainland bear farms that use catheters inserted into their gall bladders to obtain their prized bile.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Hong Kong-based Animals Asia, their plight has been well publicised but mainland authorities are still moving at a snail's pace to phase out these farms.

North Americans have done a much better job of protecting the bears. With the exception of the pandas, the Chinese - and also the Vietnamese and North Koreans - have been especially cruel to moon bears with their inhumane farms and bile-collection method.

However, there is growing awareness about animal welfare in Asian countries. The humanity of a society can often be seen from the way it treats animals. If China wants to be known as an emerging great power, it must do a better, more civilised, job of protecting its wildlife. This includes all bears - not just pandas.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post