by Whit Gibbons

January 7, 2007

You don't have to look beyond Time magazine or the Wall Street Journal these days to know that polar bears "are drowning as warmer waters widen the distance [between ice floes]" and "global warming could endanger species like the polar bear." Such reports are founded on authoritative Arctic research, and the attention on polar bears is well warranted. Apparently not even President Bush wants the dramatic white bears of the north to disappear.

When a charismatic species or group of organisms begins to decline and is threatened with foreseeable extinction, we often try to address the immediate crisis without resolving the overall problem. In addition, focus on a flagship species may draw our attention away from other groups of animals or plants that face equal or worse environmental threats. The polar bear is getting much needed attention, but what about the other bears?

Polar bears are one of the eight species of bears that exist in the world today. The cave bear (namesake of the "Clan of the Cave Bear" by Jean M. Auel), which went extinct less than 10,000 years ago, would have made nine. According to "Walker's Mammals of the World" by R. M. Nowak (1999, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore) all eight species belong to the bear family, Ursidae. The species are further divided into subgroups based on the closeness of their evolutionary relationships. One taxonomic scheme places the polar bear in a group with five others: brown (grizzlies), black (American and Asiatic), sun, and sloth bears. The spectacled bear of South America and the panda of China are alone in separate subfamilies.

Public awareness of grizzlies and black bears is extensive, but many conservation issues remain controversial. Should grizzlies be protected in national parks where people have been attacked? Should hunting of black bears be allowed in the United States? Should the killing of Asian black bears for their gall bladders--which are thought in some cultures to have medicinal values and sell for more than $1,000--be outlawed? None of these questions have a simple answer.

The Malayan sun bear is the smallest bear in the world, seldom reaching 150 pounds.
Because of overhunting (for their gall bladders), logging of forests, and poorly regulated laws, sun bears are declining throughout their Asian range. The sloth bear of Asia is a shaggy black beast with a light-colored V or Y on its chest. These bears eat termites from large mounds by sucking them up like a vacuum cleaner. By one estimate fewer than 10,000 remain in the wild, and by another account, up to 1,000 are killed each year for their gall bladders. You do the math.

The plight of the panda is known to almost everyone. Other than noting that they are very cute, eat bamboo, and are disappearing at about the same rate as the Chinese landscape, what's to be said about giant pandas? American zoos pay the Chinese government $1 million a year for each panda on display, and the Chinese own any babies that are born. You can be executed for poaching pandas in China. Pandas are also a great example of the complexity of determining evolutionary relationships. Where do they fit in the tree of life? Some scientists consider them to be in the same family as raccoons, but most authorities place them in the same family as bears. Wherever pandas belong on the evolutionary scale, their future in the wild is in danger.

Who knows what the fate will be for the little-known spectacled bear? These dark-colored bears with white circles around the eyes are reportedly declining throughout most of their range because of habitat loss and being overhunted in Peru and Venezuela.

Polar bear habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. If the current environmental trajectory continues, it will mean the end of the polar bear. Bears from other regions are also threatened. Unless public attitudes about habitat protection, greenhouse emissions, and the importance of letting other species share the planet with us change--and soon--most of today's bears may shortly join the cave bear in that black hole called extinction.

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