Notable conservation success stories, such as that of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), aren’t so easily replicable with other bear species that face different threats, and whose habitats span multiple nations. Some species, like the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), may be doomed to live in captivity at some point in the future due to the shrinking of polar ice brought on by human-induced climate change.
Dickie joins the Mongabay Newscast to discuss the urgent context these bear species face as well as the hard lessons learned that have allowed humanity to make progress on protecting some of the species.
“I think it’s quite tricky for bears threatened by climate change and not just habitat loss. Because you can address habitat loss — mining leases, agriculture expansion — with policy on the ground, but climate change is a much bigger, global issue that we haven’t made much progress on,” Dickie says.
The Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus), for instance, faces a situation where its primary habitat, cloud forests, are projected to shrink a lot in the coming years. Scientists say “60-90% of neotropical cloud forests are projected to undergo declines in cloud immersion,” which will lead to less habitat for these vulnerable mammals.
Other species such as the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and the moon bear or Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) have seen their populations decimated in Southeast Asia by the wildlife trade and bear bile farms. In Vietnam, the practice of bear bile farming has been illegal since 2005, yet persists virtually unpoliced as farmers are still legally allowed to keep bears in captivity. Still, the Vietnamese government has made strides recently in relocating some of the bears to sanctuaries.
“Basically, they said, ‘Yes. Every single person has to give over their bear by the end of 2022 and it will go to one of these sanctuaries.’ And so, they are pretty close to fulfilling that now,” Dickie says. The government effort was previously delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the United States, grizzly bears, a subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos) saw their population decline to fewer than 1,000 individuals in the contiguous 48 states by the mid-1970s. Following the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, decades of conservation efforts have slowly helped revive this population. However, Dickie says these efforts could be undermined by the reintroduction of hunting.
“[W]e have seen movements towards trying to bring back trophy hunts of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states of the U.S., but that obviously has a huge impact on populations,” she says.
Dickie points out that bears serve as an “umbrella” species whose protection (and that of its habitat) automatically confers protection on other species in the habitat. Writing about charismatic species, she says, often comes with a stigma, since large mammals already receive so much attention. But writing about iconic species, like bears, can also make the difference between people caring about the environment or not, Dickie says: “If they don’t care about bears, they’re probably not gonna care about banana slugs or insects, right?”
She also says she hopes the strong cultural connection humans have had with bears for centuries will inspire human action to protect them and other species as well.
“I hope that that bond can inspire us to save them and also inspire us to protect other species that might not be getting the same amount of attention,” she says.
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