Plight of Taiwan's rare Formosan black bear covered by CNN

'Black Bear Mama' draws attention to dwindling numbers of Taiwan's Formosan black bear

Hwang (right). (Photo from meihsiuhwang Facebook page)

Hwang (right). (Photo from meihsiuhwang Facebook page)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- The 23-year effort to document and protect the Formosan black bear by a Taiwanese conservationist was covered by CNN on Sunday (June 9).

In an interview with CNN published on Sunday, Hwang Mei-hsiu (黃美秀), associate professor and director of the Institute of Wildlife Conservation at Taiwan's National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, told the news agency about her over two decades of experience studying the elusive species and the challenges of ensuring its future in Taiwan.

When Hwang, now known as Black Bear Mama (黑熊媽媽), first started studying Taiwan's bears in 1996, many of her friends and relatives doubted that bears even existed in Taiwan. She said typical questions were: "Do we have bears in Taiwan? We never had bears. Do we still have bears?"

Although the bear has drawn attention in recent years as the mascot for Taipei City (Bravo) and the Taiwan Tourism Bureau (OhBear), Hwang said that Taiwan's black bears are on the verge of extinction due to poaching and land exploitation. As they are extremely rare and avoid contact with humans, it is difficult to know exactly how many remain in the wild.

Hwang estimates there are barely 200 to 600 bears left in all of Taiwan, reported CNN. She told the news agency that the protection of the Taiwan bear is a litmus test for other endangered species, "If we cannot protect them, I don't believe we can protect anything else."

(Photo from Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association Facebook page)

There is no data on the bear population from more than a century ago, but Taiwan's indigenous peoples have passed down traditions about the animals going back many generations. During the Japanese rule of Taiwan in the early 20th century, there were reports of bears inhabiting areas below 100 meters in elevation.

However, Hwang told CNN that the bears can currently only be found in areas above 1,000 meters in elevation. Nowadays, Hwang has to trek several hours deep in the mountains to reach locations still frequented by the elusive ursus.

The bears were driven away from lower elevations due to encroachment caused by humans, including "mining, recreation, a lot of people activity," said Hwang. The Formosan black bears are omnivorous, mainly eating fruit, berries, and nuts covering a huge area in the hundreds of square kilometers, according to Hwang.

The Formosan black bear is a subspecies of the Asian black bear, which can be found in the Himalayas, the Indian subcontinent, the Koreas, China, eastern Russia, and Japan. Unlike other large bear species, including some species of Asian black bear, the Formosan black bear does not hibernate.

Whereas in the past, indigenous tribes had a taboo against bear hunting, the high value of a black bear carcass, as much as US$5,000 had led many to ignore the taboos and encourage outside poachers. Studies carried out in Yushan National park found that before the 1980s, 22 percent of the park's bears had been killed for their meat and body parts, while this percentage soared to 59 percent by the 1990s.

Hwang said that education is the solution to the problem. She believes that if consumer awareness can be increased, the market for the bear's parts and meat will decrease.

(CNA photo)

Although the bears venture far and wide, often well beyond protected areas, Hwang believes that the key is to enforce bans on the hunting of the creature. Hwang asserted that if the animals were better protected "the current capacity for the whole island is able to have 5,000 to 10,000 individuals."

Despite the obstacles, Hwang says that increasing public awareness is slowly starting to make a difference. She said that she now has 25 volunteers assisting her in placing camera traps to track the bears in mountainous areas.

(Photo from Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association Facebook page)

(Photo from Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association Facebook page)