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.

Not so fast: why India’s plan to reintroduce cheetahs may run into problems



slowmotiongli / shutterstock

Simon Evans, Anglia Ruskin University

A nature reserve in India could soon be the only location in the world to host wild populations of four major big cat species – tiger, lion, leopard and cheetah. Kuno-Palpur, in central state of Madhya Pradesh, may not be one of India’s best-known sanctuaries but it is certainly becoming one of its most controversial. In early 2020, the country’s supreme court agreed that wildlife authorities there could reintroduce the cheetah to India, 70 years after its local extinction.

Cheetahs once roamed across much of India and the Middle East, but today the entire Asian cheetah population is confined to just a few dozen animals in remote regions of Iran. The reluctance of the Iranian authorities to part with any of these rare creatures has led India farther afield in its attempts to secure a founder population. Currently, the favoured option is African cheetahs available from Namibia, which has the world’s largest population.

Map of Africa and Asia showing cheetahs former and current range.
The world’s 10,000 or so cheetahs live in a tiny portion of their former range.
Laurie L Marker / Cheetah Conservation Fund, CC BY-SA

Kuno-Palpur was identified as the preferred location for India’s relocation programme as it has large grasslands, ideally suited to the cheetah’s need to build up speed without worrying about trees or other obstacles. These grasslands were formed, in large part, through the removal of villages and rewilding of agricultural land to make way for the relocation of the Asiatic lion.

The Asiatic lion is itself an endangered species. Like the Asian cheetah it was once common right across India and the Middle East, but it now only survives as a single population of almost 700 in Gir Forest, a national park in the state of Gujarat, western India. Fears that a single disruption event – such as a disease outbreak or poaching epidemic – may be sufficient to consign the entire species to extinction, prompted the search for a second home for these big cats. This search ended in the identification of Kuno-Palpur, almost 30 years ago.

A lion sits and faces camera.
Asiatic lions are smaller than their African cousins, have smaller and darker manes, and all live in one forest.
Andrew M. Allport / shutterstock

In 2016 India’s supreme court, citing unacceptable delays, ordered the lion relocation process to be completed within six months. At the same time, the court dismissed a parallel application for the reintroduction of cheetahs, reasoning that it would be paradoxical to elevate the claims of an exotic subspecies (African cheetahs) over those of an endemic (Asiatic lions).

Today there are still no lions in Kuno-Palpur, although it does retain a stable leopard population. This non-compliance has been widely attributed to parochial politics, wrapped up in what has been described as Gujarati pride. Despite the fact that all wildlife is deemed a national resource under the Indian constitution, Gujarat appears determined to hold on to its state monopoly on the creatures.

Then, in early 2020, the court made an unexpected U-turn and gave the green light for cheetah reintroduction to begin. Some experts questioned the science behind the decision. For example they point out that the cheetah is a wide-ranging species, known to travel across areas up to 1,000 sq km in a single year. Indian parks tend to be much smaller than those in Africa, offering less chance for such free movement. And, while the habitat is currently suited to cheetahs – and lions – some fear that it may ultimately evolve into dry, scrubby forest more suited to tigers.

A cheetah chases after a small antelope.
Springbok hunting in Namibia.
Elana Erasmus / shutterstock

There is also credible evidence that tigers are already dispersing to Kuno-Palpur as animals from a reserve in neighbouring Rajasthan seek to escape territorial over-crowding. This suggests there is a functioning wildlife corridor between the two reserves, a stated priority for Indian conservation.

This is not a simple issue to resolve. As the supreme court is increasingly called upon to adjudicate between the various factions, so these conundrums are likely to intensify in the future. There is no science available currently to suggest that cheetahs, lions, tigers and leopards can coexist comfortably in the same habitat. It has never occurred anywhere else before, so there is no real-life experience to draw upon.

In my research for a forthcoming book on tigers I found India’s wildlife is becoming increasingly commercialised and much of what we accept as rational conservation can just as easily be viewed through an economic lens – one that reflects the benefits of tourism. On the surface, the cheetah scheme feels more like a vanity project than a conservation imperative; no doubt a boon for wildlife tourism but maybe also a presenting a threat of intra-species and human-wildlife conflict.The Conversation

Simon Evans, Principal Lecturer in Ecotourism, Anglia Ruskin University

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

Australia: The Eastern Quoll


The link below is to an article that reports on the extinction of the Eastern Quoll on mainland Australia, however there are plans to reintroduce the species near Sydney.

For more visit:
http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/resurrecting-locally-extinct-eastern-quolls.htm