New Zealand zoologist Brendan Moyle reports from China where he is at a meeting discussing the problem of counting Asiatic black bears, which, given that many are caught and kept in misery as bile is extracted from their gall bladders, try to avoid humans as much as possible.
The big reason is that it is hard to count black bears. They have learned to be very wary of people. This is perhaps unsurprising when locals regard you as a pest, a source of food, and a source of medicine, all rolled into one furry package. So all the usual observation tricks, don’t work so well. There’s a very very low rate of records with camera traps. Pandas (also in Sichuan) are relatively easy. Black bears are not only rarely captured, they are almost never seen again in the same camera trap. Thousands of days of camera trapping has occurred with a handful, or no, records in some locations. They just don’t like being anywhere or close to anything, they associate with humans. That extends beyond camera traps to all the varied lures and tricks that work elsewhere.
Estimating the numbers of black bears in China got a lot harder. We have a species that is actively trying to avoid being detected. It has become quite the dilemma.
The Chinese think there is about 28,000 wild black bears in China, Moyle says, but the estimate could be wildly inaccurate.
The problem for the black bears, Moyle says, is that their bile really does have beneficial pharmacological effects, unlike material such as rhino horn, the effects of which are based on superstition not fact. Bear bile is used to treat eye diseases, liver diseases and bacterial infections.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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