Often called “Taiwan's Jane Goodall,” Hwang Mei-hsiu (黃美秀) prefers the more modest “bear mother,” a rough translation of the nickname ali duma given to her by Bunun Aborigines.
For more than a decade, Hwang, an assistant professor at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, has devoted herself to studying and helping Taiwan understand one of its national symbols — the Formosan black bear.
Despite her efforts, this symbol — voted the nation's most representative wildlife species in a 2001 poll — could one day disappear from its native land if poaching, habitat encroachment and government and public indifference continue.
It is an outcome Hwang is determined to prevent.
“We should do something quickly and urgently to turn around the bear's prospects. Otherwise, its fate will be sealed,” Hwang said in a recent interview.
There are no clear figures on how many Formosan black bears remain in the wild because they live in remote mountain areas that are hard to reach. They are also intelligent and elusive animals, making them difficult to track.
But there is no doubt that their numbers are dwindling, Hwang said, citing Forestry Bureau surveys and discussions with Aboriginal hunters, who report fewer sightings.
Records show that the bears roamed in low-altitude areas during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan fom 1895 to 1945, but Aboriginal hunters tell Hwang that the bears, listed as an endangered species following the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act (野生動物保育法) in 1989, have now disappeared from traditional hunting grounds, possibly having fled to higher altitudes.
Hwang estimates the number of black bears remaining in the country at between 200 and 700, far below the count of at least 2,000 that conservationists generally consider as a healthy number for large mammal species.
“The number of Formosan black bears has fallen mainly because of overexploitation and habitat encroachment,” Hwang said.
Poaching remains a serious problem, as evidenced by the continued use of wire snares and jaw traps to catch the bears, Hwang said.
Hwang made a name for herself with her study of the bears at Dafen, at an elevation of 1,350m, in Yushan National Park, from 1998 through 2000 and now visits the site frequently.
Eight out of the 15 bears she and her team of volunteers found at Yushan National Park in the late 1990s were either pawless or toeless, as the bears had bitten off their extremities or lost them after being snared in traps.
She is also concerned that the bear's elusiveness may be their undoing. The public is more interested in more visible endangered animals, such as the Formosan landlocked salmon, green turtle, or the fairy pitta bird, she said.
“The average person has no chance of encountering Formosan black bears because the animals live in remote mountainous areas and are rare and shy,” Hwang said. “But just because you haven't seen one doesn't mean it does not exist.”
The government needs to get more involved if the Formosan black bear is to have a future, Hwang said, criticizing the efforts of past and present administrations as “slow and limited.”
“The government has not really addressed the issue squarely, so it has never come up with a systematic and long-term plan. It has shown a lack of commitment to resolve the complicated questions involved in conservation efforts,” Hwang said.