Over-development and long-term neglect have brought Taiwan’s only indigenous bears to near extinction, researchers said, adding that while the newly arrived Chinese pandas were being pampered in world-class shelters, the black bears’ natural habitat was being destroyed for roads and other projects.
The Formosan black bear was once voted the best animal to represent Taiwan’s wildlife. It was also the Taipei City Zoo’s most popular animal, but its popularity has beens waning amid the recent panda fever.
The Council of Agriculture (COA) said that years of poaching and insufficient conservation funding have left only about 200 to 300 black bears in the wild — far less than the world’s panda population, which is estimated at 1,600. It has been reported that only NT$18 million (US$540,000) for 10 years has been allocated for funding to protect Taiwanese black bears, while the two pandas, Tuan Tuan (團團) and Yuan Yuan (圓圓), will each receive at least NT$2 million (US$60,000) in funding a year.
In addition to the lack of funding, researchers said much of the bears’ habitat was being destroyed.
At the country’s leading wildlife research center, National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, assistant professor Huang Mei-hsiu (黃美琇) has helped record and chart the bears’ whereabouts for 15 years.
Her maps show that the bears inhabit a large area that extends to the Chatian Natural Reserve in the north, Pingtung County’s Nandawu Mountains in the south, Ilan County in the east and Taiwu Township (泰武) in the west. Huang said traces of the bears have also been found along the coastal mountain range.
However, her study shows that the bear population has declined rapidly as their living environment is flattened to build roads for tourists.
Center director Yang Ji-chung (楊吉宗) listed human activities and over-development as the biggest threats to the bears.
Yang said the lack of funding presented a big challenge to the center. For example, researchers had successfully bred two cubs and intended to release them into the wild, he said, but the plan had to be dropped because some experts said the cubs’ genes did not fully match up with that of indigenous Formosan black bears, which meant the parents could have been from a different family.
He said that although there was not enough data to confirm the cubs were not Formosan black bears, the center did not have the funding to use DNA sequencing to prove whether or not the parents were pure Formosans.
Unlike other tropical bears, Formosan black bears do not hibernate during the winter. Huang’s research shows that even in the winter months, the bears spend 54 percent to 57 percent of their days hunting for food. In the summer and fall, that increases to 60 percent, while during the spring it drops to 47 percent.
Many people mistakenly think that bears are strictly carnivores, Yang said, but the fact is most bears are omnivores. More than 80 percent of their diet is plant-based, he said.
Fossil data shows that bears have been roaming the island for more than 500,000 years. The Formosan black bear is considered an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.