South Korea is bringing back bears in a country of 52 million people – I went to find out how


Joshua Powell, UCLThe return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 popularised the idea of reintroducing long-lost species to modern habitats. While scientists are still trying to fully understand the ecological consequences, the wolf’s reintroduction likely benefited other species, illustrating how conservation can not just slow biodiversity loss, but even reverse it.

That project, however, took place in a vast protected wilderness. Many of the places where biologists now hope to reintroduce large wild animals – whether it’s lynx in Britain or cheetahs in India – are a little closer to where people live, with all of the potential problems that entails in terms of human-wildlife conflict.

In South Korea, a country of similar size and similar human population density to England, conservationists are in the process of restoring the native bear population, Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, to be precise. While slightly smaller than their North American cousins, these are still large wild animals, capable of causing fear and alarm and posing a risk to human life and property.

The head and shoulders of a large black bear with two brown stripes on its chest.
The Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), or moon bear.
Joshua Powell, Author provided

I wanted to find out how South Korea is managing this ambitious project, so I travelled to Jirisan National Park, a mountainous region in the far south of the Korean Peninsula.

By the 1990s, along with occasional sightings in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), Jirisan had become the last foothold of the Asiatic black bear in South Korea. An attempted eradication programme by the colonial Japanese regime of the early 20th century and overhunting following independence in 1945 meant bears had fared badly for some time. At the close of the century, there were thought to be just five wild bears left in the country, and the species was on the brink of extinction in South Korea.

These were not the only bears in the country though. A large population lingered on farms producing bear bile and body parts, which are used in traditional medicine, and bear meat. Since the 1990s, South Korea has cracked down on the bear part trade, but the remaining population of around 380 captive bears still substantially outnumbers those in the wild (around 70 in 2021).

A black bear's head looms behind bars.
A captive Asiatic black bear on a disused bear bile farm in Gangwon-do, South Korea.
Joshua Powell, Author provided

These farm bears might have seemed the ideal animals to rebuild a wild population. But the bears probably belonged to a range of different subspecies and were potential disease risks. Years of being fed by humans also meant that the bears could seek out contact – and cause conflict – with humans. Instead, bears were imported from China, Russia and North Korea. In 2004, the first six cubs were released into Jirisan.

Why did South Korea’s bear programme succeed?

No grand claims were made about reshaping the relationship between humans and the natural world, and no changes were promised to centuries-old methods of managing landscapes, ideas which often feature in debates about rewilding. Instead, conservationists in South Korea established a modest initial goal: returning a population of 50 bears to a single protected area.

Soft releases, in which bears are kept in pens to acclimate to their surroundings before being set free, and extensive monitoring of bears post-release, helped increase the likelihood of each released bear surviving. Bears that strayed too far were returned to the national park.

Captive breeding, underpinned by impressive veterinary expertise, has also helped the population grow. One milestone involved the world’s first successful use of artificial insemination in this genus of bear, a boon for maintaining genetic diversity in a small population. Bears injured by snares or traffic collisions have also been successfully returned to the wild.

An anaesthetised bear lies on a stretcher on top of a metal examination table.
Veterinarians prepare to transport a female bear following examination.
Joshua Powell, Author provided

The initial target of 50 bears was exceeded and the population now stands at over 70. A recent study found that some bears were now dispersing across South Korea, suggesting that Jirisan National Park may be close to reaching the limit of bears it can sustain.

This presents new challenges. Conservationists have, so far, been remarkably successful at reducing conflict between bears and people, and building support for restoring bears to Jirisan National Park with education programmes, presentations for residents and hikers, a centre where visitors can learn about the reintroduction programme and even the use of moon bear mascots for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics.

But the appearance of bears outside of the national park still attracts prime-time media coverage, which can hamper efforts to cultivate tolerance and maintain a reasonable dialogue with the public about the realities of living alongside bears. People feeding bears remains an issue, as does illegal snaring for game species, which can severely injure bears. As South Korea reaches the next stage of its reintroduction programme, is the country prepared to accept bears outside of a protected area?

A rocky mountain vista with streaks of snow.
Bukhansan National Park, near Seoul. Once home to leopards and tigers, could these mountains see bears again?
Joshua Powell, Author provided

It will be fascinating to follow these bears over the coming years as conservationists address these questions. And Asiatic black bears are just the start. South Korea has since established programmes to restore the red fox, which is surprisingly rare in the country, and the long-tailed goral, a goat-like mammal whose populations have been depleted by poaching and habitat loss.

These programmes will face challenges, but South Korea has shown considerable expertise in the field of mammal reintroductions. Expertise that other countries could well learn from.The Conversation

Joshua Powell, London NERC DTP PhD Researcher, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With the right help, bears can recover from the torture of bile farming


Edward Narayan, Western Sydney University

Bear bile farms, which exist in some Asian countries like Vietnam and China, are a terrible reality for Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus).

The bears spend their lives confined in tiny steel or concrete cages. They are “milked” through permanent holes in their side that allow bile to be extracted from the gall bladder.

My research, published in the journal Animal Welfare, investigated the chronic stress created by these conditions. We found that with care and rehabilitation, rescued bears in animal sanctuaries can readjust to a normal lifestyle with a reduction in stress – a highly encouraging result.




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What’s so precious about bile?

Bile is a greenish-brown fluid produced by the liver in humans and most vertebrates. Bile acid aids digestion of fats – and one particular bile compound, called ursodeoxycholic acid, could have potential pharmaceutical applications.

Because of this, bear bile is highly sought in traditional Chinese medicine. It is believed to reduce gall stones and improve indigestion, among other things. However, non-animal-derived and synthetic alternatives exist for urosodeoxycholic acid and other bile components.

The use of Asiatic black bears as primary sources of bile is a significant animal welfare problem that needs global awareness. Most of the bears are introduced to the trade upon poaching from the wild, and cubs as young as a few months are caged and held captive for up to 30 years.

I worked with the international welfare organisation AnimalsAsia, which runs rescue and rehabilitation programs in Asia and has moved hundreds of bears into sanctuaries.

My research investigated how successful this rehabilitation is, and whether rescued bears can recover from their experiences.

Animal cruelty causes chronic stress

Stress is defined as any unpleasant physical or psychological change that creates an uncomfortable feeling and negative outcome.

Not surprisingly, bears at bile farms in Vietnam have significantly higher levels of stress hormones than bears living in sanctuaries. This is the first scientific evidence of the chronic stress created by bear bile farming.

Stress in vertebrates (like humans and bears) is a physiological response in the endocrine system, also known as the hypothalamus-pituitary adrenal axis. This is the body’s main control centre for all things related to stress.

Stress hormones like cortisol help regulate the metabolism, especially in times of short-term or acute stress such as “fight or flight” situations. In normal situations, sharp stress causes an increase of cortisol that allows an animal to react quickly to a dangerous situation. Once the danger passes, a negative feedback loop reduces cortisol production and keeps the body stable.




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But chronic stress can lead to harmful changes in the stress endocrine system. Long-term cortisol overproduction weakens the body’s ability to fend off daily challenges, and increases the risk of disease and death. In humans, chronic stress contributes to problems with the cardiovascular, immune and central nervous systems.

The presence of what we call “stress biomarkers” in faeces or hair can be a very useful tool for assessing animal welfare.

We measured cortisol levels in bear faeces to rapidly and reliably check their stress levels.

This was particularly useful because we did not have to restrain the rescued bears, a process that would understandably upset them more than their peers.

Reversing chronic stress in bear sanctuaries

Chronic stress is a massive challenge for the successful rehabilitation of animals into their new environment. Careful monitoring of stress is essential in animal rescue and translocation programs because it can provide information on the physiological resilience of each animal, and help rescuers understand how the animals might respond to humane interventions and veterinary checks.

Rescued bears are given special veterinary care and integrated into the bear sanctuary after several months of careful physiological and behavioural assessments.

Our data show that although not all bears fully recover from living on a bile farm, they generally manage to reduce their stress hormone levels under the rehabilitation program.




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Like humans, animals need love and care. Stress reseach has shown humane treatment can reverse chronic stress – and our study has found that is true even for animals who have experienced intolerable treatment.The Conversation

Edward Narayan, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science; Stress and Animal Welfare Biologist, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.