Saving Asiatic black bears requires changing local beliefs

May 7, 2019

The Malayan sun bears and Asiatic black bears, or “moon bears,” found across much of South and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas experienced a dramatic decline in population in recent decades and are facing a variety of threats throughout their range. They are routinely seized from forests so as to harvest their bile, which traditional beliefs credit with magical curative powers. In countries like Laos and Vietnam the animals are removed from the wild and put in "bear farms" where bears are kept in life-threatening captivity in tiny cages and their bile is drained for profit or their paws are cut off to be used in "bear paw soups". 

In a new study, published in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy researchers survey Laotian villagers about their attitudes towards wild black bears and support for bear conservation efforts. Darunee Sukanan, a 2017 graduate of the 1-year master program and Professor Brandon P. Anthony conducted this research in a rural area of Laos where a sanctuary for bears rescued from bile farms and the illegal wildlife trade is now under construction.

The authors conclude in "Community attitudes towards bears, bear bile use and bear conservation in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR"* that culturally relevant conservation tactics are needed for successful conservation: 
"Positive attitudes towards bears appear prevalent in the communities surrounding the new sanctuary. Villagers are familiar with laws regarding wildlife conservation but lack a deeper understanding of the status and plight of wild bears in the country, particularly how bear farming is a threat to the species. Conservation efforts must entail culturally relevant co-educational initiatives to garner further support from local communities," they write.

In an interview with Sustainability Times Sukanan and Anthony further discussed their research and its potential impact on the Asiatic black bear population. 

“Conservation efforts without community engagement cannot be sustainable in wildlife conservation,” stressed Sukanan in the interview. "Natural resources such as forests are essential to villagers who live on subsistence farming, as well as by hunting and gathering. As a result, many local people see wild animals as part of their livelihood. That is why community outreach projects are important in educating local people about the need to protect diminishing natural resources, including wildlife."

“[Continued] reliance on Traditional Chinese Medicine, particularly the persistent demand for wild-sourced products, is one of the greatest threats to bears in the region” coauthor Brandon P. Anthony told Sustainability Times. "Community outreach projects are of fundamental importance, but they must be culturally sensitive, and operate on a foundation of trust and mutual understanding where co-learning is an articulated outcome.... I believe our research highlights that community engagement in wildlife conservation must be culturally relevant and is highly contextual in terms of the target species/ecosystems, the communities involved, and the institutions responsible for managing the engagement."

*Sukanan, Darunee [MESP 16/17] & Anthony, Brandon P. 2019. Community attitudes towards bears, bear bile use and bear conservation in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine (part of Springer Nature) 15: 15 pp.