More Bad News for Bears

Researchers estimate that only about 10,000 sun bears remain.© Jeremy Henderson

The international non-profit World Conservation Union/IUCN added Asia’s sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), to its Red List of the planet’s most endangered species. Researchers estimate that only about 10,000 individual sun bears, the smallest of the world’s eight bear species, remain across the its Southeast Asian range from India to Indonesia.

"Although we still have a lot to learn about the biology and ecology of this species, we are quite certain that it is in trouble," Rob Steinmetz, a bear expert with the Geneva-based World Conservation Union, told reporters. "We estimate that sun bears have declined by at least 30 percent over the past 30 years and continue to decline at this rate."

The major threats affecting the sun bear’s population numbers, according to Steinmetz, include deforestation and habitat loss as well as poaching for the animal’s bile, long used by Chinese traditional medicine practitioners to treat eye and liver ailments, as well as for food and fur.

The sun bear is the sixth bear species to make the Red List, meaning only two of the world’s eight bear species—the brown bear of the U.S., Canada and Russia and the American black bear—are not considered threatened or endangered across their entire ranges. The other vulnerable species on the Red List are China’s Giant Panda, the Asiatic black bear, the sloth bear on the Indian subcontinent, the Andean bear in South America and the polar bear. The plight of the sun bear and other endangered bears is especially worrisome to many environmentalists, as the health of bears and other large carnivores who rule their respective food chains speaks volumes of the health of the wider ecosystems they inhabit. Steinmetz and other champions of wildlife hope that the added publicity given the sun bear due to its inclusion on the Red List will spur more people to take action to facilitate a recovery.

Sources: MSNBC; Guardian Unlimited; The World conservation Union