Fast Facts

Length:120–190 cm
Weight:40–200 kg
Lifespan:25 years (wild)
Distribution:Afghanistan; Bangladesh; Bhutan; Cambodia; China; India; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Japan; Korea, Democratic People's Republic of; Korea, Republic of; Lao People's Democratic Republic; Myanmar; Nepal; Pakistan; Russian Federation; Taiwan, Province of China; Thailand; Viet Nam
Status:Vulnerable A2cd (IUCN)
Appendix I (CITES)

Taxonomy

Kingdom:Animalia
Phylum:Chordata
Class:Mammalia
Order:Carnivora
Family:Ursidae
Genus:Ursus
Species:Ursus thibetanus (G. Cuvier, 1823)
Subspecies:Ursus thibetanus formosanus (Swinhoe, 1864)
Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus (Blanford, 1877)
Ursus thibetanus japonicas (Schlegel, 1857)
Ursus thibetanus laniger (Pocock, 1932)
Ursus thibetanus mupinensis (Heude, 1901)
Ursus thibetanus thibetanus (Cuvier, 1823)
Ursus thibetanus ussuricus (Heude, 1901)

Common Names

English:Asiatic black bear, Himalayan black bear, Moon bear
French:Ours du Tibet, Ours a collier, Ours de l’Himalaya, Ours noir d’Asie
Spanish:Oso de collar, Oso negro de Asia
Afghanistan:Khers e siyah
Bangladesh:Bhalu, Bhalluk
Cambodia:Khlakhmoum thom (Phonetic translation)
India:Kala bhalu, Reech, Haput
Iran:Khers e siyah e balouchi
Lao PDR: Mi dam
Myanmar:Wet wun, Myin wun
Pakistan:Kala bhalu, Reech, Haput
Russia: азиатский черный медведь, Asiatski chorni medved
Thailand:Mi dam
Viet Nam:Kon gấu

Description

The Asiatic black bear is distinguishable by a cream-colored or white “crescent moon” on its chest against a backdrop of black fur. Asiatic black bears have a light muzzle, and some also have white fur under their chin and lower lip. A rare brown phase is known to occur as are blonde and blonde-black phases [1]. Asiatic black bears are well known for their mane of long hair (about 15 cm) around their face, although this is absent in some portions of their range. The ears appear large in proportion to the head in comparison to most other bear species. [2] Body mass of adult Asiatic black bears ranges from 50 to 200 kg. The species is sexually dimorphic with males weighing 100 to 200 kg, whereas females weigh 50 to 125 kg. The total length of adults is 130 to 190 cm [2,7]. Asiatic black bears have strong, curved claws up to 5 cm long. They are well adapted to climbing and have strong upper bodies and forelimbs. Their heel pads are large, which assists in climbing and foraging for nuts and fruits. Their hind legs are shorter than American black bears (U. americanus) or brown bears (U. arctos) [2–5]. Relatively little is known about the social structure and organization of the Asiatic black bear. Studies indicate that these bears are primarily solitary [6].

Morphologya

Body length (cm)Tail length (cm)Hind pad width (cm)Body mass (kg)
130–190118.0–11.550–200

a[2,5,11] 

Biology

Asiatic black bears are generally nocturnal, sleeping in caves or tree hollows during the day [6]. They are opportunistic omnivores and exhibit a wide range of foraging strategies ranging from predatory to frugivorous behaviors [3,7,8]. While foraging in trees they often pull branches and vegetation to form “platforms” or “nests,” enabling them to spend more time in trees to rest and feed [4].

At the northern edge of their range (Russia, Korea, Japan, northeastern China, and high elevations of the Himalayan foothills during snowy winters) both male and female Asiatic black bears hibernate over winter [9]. Hibernation is a period of prolonged dormancy and fasting, and it is an adaptation for periods of food scarcity. Bears in these regions enter the den in October to late December and emerge between mid March and the end of May [9,10]. Dens may occur in rock crevices, hollow trees and stumps, under fallen trees and roots, in dug-out earthen dens, or in ground nests. Dens may be located in flat river bottoms or at high elevations on rocky outcrops and steep slopes [9,11]. In Japan, Asiatic black bears often locate their den in remote, mountainous areas where human access is limited [4,10]. With the exception of pregnant females, Asiatic black bears do not hibernate in regions where food is available all year, which is primarily from the Himalayan foothills southward. Throughout the range, pregnant females den to give birth, with the den providing protection for the altricial (i.e., underdeveloped and needing parental care and feeding) cubs [6].

Reproduction and Lifespan

Female Asiatic black bears typically produce their first litter of cubs at 4–5 years of age. The mating season is from May through August, and they give birth to 1 or 2 cubs (range = 1–3) during November–March [2,12]. Research in Japan indicates the fertilized eggs undergo embryonic diapause at the blastocyst stage for 4 to 5 months, as has been documented for several other bear species, delaying implantation in the uterine wall until late November to early December. True gestation lasts approximately 60 days (8 weeks), followed by parturition between late January and early February [13]. At birth, cubs are altricial and weigh about 230 g [13]. Cubs open their eyes after about 30 days and will follow their mother when she emerges from the den in April or May [9]. Cubs stay with their mother for at least 1.5 years [8, 15]. Consequently, a female typically gives birth only every other year [2]. Although their maximum age can exceed 30 years, the average life span is much lower among wild Asiatic black bears.

Reproduction and lifespana

Gestation (weeks)Litter sizeLifespan (yr) (a)
JuvenileAdult ageMaximum age
81–21.54–530

a[8,14]

Taxonomy

The Asiatic black bear is considered the least changed of the Old World bears and many theories postulate on their evolution [15–18]. Asiatic black bear diverged between 3 and 5 million years ago. Genomic studies indicate substantial ancestral gene flow between the Asiatic black bear and the ancestral lineage of the American black bear, polar bear (U. maritimus), and brown bear [18]. Within the fossil record, their morphology and mitochondrial phylogeny suggest that Asiatic black bears and American black bears share a close evolutionary relationship [18,19]. Consequently, despite being geographically separated the evolution of the Asiatic black bear has been particularly difficult to resolve [18,19]. The documentation of a natural hybrid between the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) further complicates our understanding of gene flow and the evolutionary history of Asiatic black bears [18,20].

Population Status

The Asiatic black bear occurs in 18 range countries. Country-wide population estimates have been derived for 6 countries [21–24], however these should be treated as approximations. The only reliable population estimates have been obtained for smaller areas, primarily in Thailand [25,26]. They were determined using a variety of methods, including mark-recapture with camera traps and individual chest patterns [25,26], bear sign, interviews, and evidence from harvest and poaching [27]. Bear sign surveys have provided estimates of relative abundance among populations [27]. Whereas some countries (South Korea, Japan, Bhutan, Thailand, India) report stable to increasing populations, the most recent assessment by the IUCN is that global population numbers are decreasing [27].

Population estimates (6 range countries)a

China28,000
Japan12,000–19,000
India5,000–7,000
Russia5,000–7,000
Iran100–200
South Korea40 (following reintroduction)

a[21,22,23,27,32,33,65]

Distribution and Range

Fossil evidence suggests that Asiatic black bears were present in various parts of present-day Europe during the early Pliocene to late Pleistocene, as far west as France and as far north as the Ural Mountains and Germany [29–31]. Historically and presently, however, their distribution is limited to the Asian continent with over half of the total range in China [28–32]. The geographic range is patchy and roughly matches the distribution of broad-leaved and coniferous forests. They range from southeastern Iran through Pakistan, northern Afghanistan, extending across the foothills of the Himalayas and into Myanmar, southern China, and Southeast Asia. They are not found in Malaysia, where their niche is occupied by the sun bear. Robust populations are found in northeastern China, southern Russian Far East, and possibly North Korea. South Korea has a small, isolated population that is increasing as the result of a reintroduction program in Jirisan National Park in 2004 [33]. Asiatic black bears are present on the islands of Honshu and Shikoku in Japan as well as on Taiwan and Hainan [27]. Overall, Asiatic black bears have been extirpated from many portions of their range; however, they still persist in all 18 of their historic range countries.

Geographic rangea

Asiatic black bear range map from IUCN Red Lis

a[27]

Habitat

Asiatic black bears inhabit a variety of forested areas. They can be found in broad-leaved and coniferous forests from sea level to elevations of 3,700–4,300 m [27]. In some populations, Asiatic black bears migrate according to seasonal food abundance [34,35]. They are omnivores and will consume meat from ungulates, carrion, and insects as well as hard and soft mast [36]. In some portions of their range, Asiatic black bears also use regenerating forests, which are likely to contain abundant berries and young bamboo shoots [37]. They also forage in plantations, where they strip the bark of trees and eat cambium [38,39], and in corn and oat fields and fruit orchards [22,40–43]. The driest regions within their occupied range are in Iran and southern Pakistan. In these regions, the steppe forests are dry and patchy, and bears make use of riparian areas, abandoned date palm, olive, and pistachio orchards to forage [44]. They use rock caves as shelters during the day and forage at night [45] in contrast to bears living in forested areas where they remain active during the day (i.e., diurnal) or during the crepuscular hours at dawn and dusk [34,46].

Home Range

Home ranges of Asiatic black bears vary widely in size, depending on habitat productivity, season, reproductive and life cycle stage, and region [7,11,34,36,47,48]. High and varied forest cover is a positive predictor of black bear habitat use in most regions, followed by agricultural crops and shrub cover in some regions [49]. Except in tropical regions, seasonal shifts in home ranges are common, particularly during autumn when bears increase food consumption in preparation for hibernation [11].

Home range sizesa

RegionHome range size (km2)
FemaleMale
Japan33–9645–123
Taiwan? –11724–200
China16,37
Russia Far East16–2531–1,000

a[11,34,36,47,48]

Diet

Asiatic black bears are omnivorous, with seasonal diet shifts in response to changing food availability [34,35]. During spring, they seek succulent vegetation and also rely on food produced during the previous fall, such as acorns from Quercus spp. In alpine areas, Asiatic black bears may forage on carcasses of animals such as sika deer (Cervus nippon) [41]. During summer months, they continue to forage on succulent plants but expand their diet with soft mast (e.g. Prunus grayana) and leaves and shoots from species such as dwarf bamboo (Sasa spp.) [4]. During autumn months, Asiatic black bears in temperate environments rely on hard mast from oak, beech, walnut, chestnut, hazelnut, and pine nut species to build fat reserves in preparation for hibernation [50]. In addition to hard mast, bears in temperate regions also forage on soft fruits, cinnamon, teak, berries, and young bamboo shoots [36]. In central Japan, Asiatic black bears forage on insects throughout the year, but primarily during the summer months [51,52].

In dry areas, such as in southeastern Iran and Pakistan, Asiatic black bears often forage in abandoned orchards of date palm, apricots, figs, and walnuts [44]. For these bears, foraging on agricultural crops allows them to inhabit regions where natural foods are sparse [53].

Seasonal dieta

SeasonPlant source (%)Animal source (%)Main food items
Spring973Forbs and leaves from shrubs (Anthriscus sylvestris, Heracleum spp., Angelica spp., Petasita tricholobus, Hydrangea spp., Rubus coreanus)
Summer8515Soft mast (Rubus coreanus, Prunus spp.) and colonial insects (e.g., wasps, ants)
Fall9010Hard mast (Quercus spp., Corylus spp., Juglaus cathayensis) and fruits (Celtis biondii, Actinidia chinensis, Vitis spp., and Rosa spp. in India; Pinus spp., Ribes spp., Carex spp., and Lilium spp. in Russia)

a[8,51,52]

Conservation Status

The Asiatic black bear is listed as Vulnerable (A2cd) under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List [28]. The Vulnerable listing is due to the decline in population numbers in most of Southeast Asia and China because of habitat loss, illegal killing, and wildlife trade (e.g., for bear bile). The 2016 IUCN Red List assessment estimated that the global population of this species declined by 31% over the past 30 years [12,27]. Without conservation and protection measures, the rate of decline is expected to increase over the next 30 years. The Asiatic black bear has been listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1979. Appendix I of CITES is reserved for species threatened with extinction and serves to prohibit commercial international trade.

National laws protect Asiatic black bears in most range countries, but compliance and enforcement for protection of this species is difficult. Sport hunting of Asiatic black bears is permitted only in Russia and Japan, with reported harvests of 75–100 and 500 bears per year, respectively. In Japan 1,000–2,000 bears per year are also killed in response to human–bear conflicts, exceeding annual sport harvest [27].

Asiatic Black Bears and Humans

In rural areas Asiatic black bears and humans are frequently involved in conflict where orchards, bee farms, and agricultural crops are prevalent, often in areas with recent land use changes [64]. In these regions Asiatic black bears are affected by loss of habitat due to conversion of suitable natural habitat to agricultural lands. Additionally, crops are attractive to Asiatic black bears as food sources, especially where natural foods are scarce, as in Iran and Pakistan. These conflicts can result in retaliatory killings of bears as humans seek to protect their properties and communities. A key component of ensuring the survival of Asiatic black bears is to find ways of co-existing with the species and conserving and protecting their habitats.

Threats

Habitat loss due to deforestation (logging, conversion to agriculture, human encroachment, transportation infrastructure) and overexploitation are the primary threats to Asiatic black bear populations. For example, less than 10% of the species range is protected in India. Forest cover is less than 30% in Thailand and less than 7% in Bangladesh [54]. China has been focusing conservation efforts on increasing forest area in order to mitigate flooding and erosion, but it is unknown whether these reforested areas will eventually provide suitable habitats for Asiatic black bears [27]. Future projections of addressing these threats remain uncertain because they are closely linked to market demand of bear bile. Marketing of herbal or synthetically produced alternatives may alleviate the threat. Bear parts from poached bears are routinely confiscated through international efforts combating wildlife smuggling, trade, and traffic, but the number of confiscations is believed to far under-represent the extent of the actual trade.

Capture and smuggling of live bears for use in the pet trade remains a threat in many Southeast Asian countries [27]. When the cubs become burdensome as they grow older, they are often killed or released. Where bear farming is practiced (see below in Asiatic Black Bears and Humans for more information), orphaned cubs are sold to bear farms, where bile from their gall bladder is extracted for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In Pakistan, when a female bear with cubs is killed, the cubs are commonly sold in the pet trade [54]. The use of Asiatic black bears in dog fighting was once common in Pakistan, but the practice was banned in 2001. At one time, bears were commonly used as “dancing” entertainment in several range countries, and although this practice is now illegal in India, it continues in Pakistan [27].

Asiatic black bears have been sought after for centuries for their skin, paws, and gallbladder. Consequently, poaching is a major threat to the Asiatic black bear in at least half of the range countries, including China, Taiwan, Russia, India, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Paws are sold to affluent people who believe their consumption will give them good fortune and luck or as a status symbol [55]. Bear bile from the gallbladder contains the medically active component ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). Asiatic black bears were historically hunted more than other bear species for their bile because they produce high levels of UDCA [56]. Among Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners, bear bile in its various forms (e.g., whole gallbladders, raw, pills, powders, flakes, ointments) is used to treat ailments such as gall stones, eyesight problems, convulsions, fever, and inflammation [57]. Clinical trials of UDCA have shown that many of the medicinal properties described in Traditional Chinese Medicine hold true, including the treatment of liver disease and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, and the prevention of Type 1 diabetes [58,59].

In the late 1970s, methods were developed to extract bile from the gallbladder of living bears, a process known as bear farming [27]. In an effort to reduce poaching of bears for their gallbladders and bile, some countries have made bear farming into an industry [27]. However, it remains unclear to what degree bear farming contributes to poaching pressure. In China, bear bile farmers were licensed to capture wild bears and place them in cages in order to facilitate the extraction of bile from the gallbladder through a permanent catheter. This practice changed to a method of extracting bile where bile freely drips from a permanent hole created in the bear’s abdomen and gallbladder. Many provinces in China have now banned bear bile farming, although as many as 10,000–17,000 bears may still remain in such facilities [27]. Some reports indicate an active breeding program may be occurring in some farms in China, but the degree to which this occurs remains unknown [27]. Other provinces have developed stricter regulations, such as only allowing captive-bred bears, bears younger than 4 years, larger cage sizes, and free-drip methods. In other countries such as Viet Nam and Lao DR, bear bile farms are illegal, but the practice may be on the rise in Myanmar even though it is officially illegal there as well [27,60]. Several synthetic alternatives of UDCA are readily available as well as herbal alternatives, although many users do not regard these alternatives equally powerful or valuable [61]. Synthesized UDCA is available and widely used in China, Japan, and South Korea, but many practitioners prefer to use actual bear bile in the belief that it is superior. The practice of milking bile is highly stressful and invasive for the bear, leading to chronic physical pain and psychological suffering, deformations, injury, and illness [57,62,63]. If rescued, such bears could not be reintroduced to the wild. Given that alternative sources of UDCA are readily available, one of the biggest obstacles to reducing the demand for wild and captive bear bile will require people’s perspectives to change [57,61].

Contributor

Sandra Elvin, PhD

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Links

IUCN Red List account: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22824/114252336

Formosan black bear: http://blackbear.ysnp.gov.tw/English/index.asp