years ago this April, Jill Robinson first walked onto a bear bile farm. On that day in April 1993, Jill could have walked away, but she chose to act and do what she could. Today, you also have a choice. If everyone reading this donated just US$20, it would pay for the care of over 150 bears at our China sanctuary for a full year. Please help us celebrate 20 years of progress. Donate US$20 today (or whatever you can afford).
Many of the bears we rescue suffer severe disabilities and need long term care.
Cubs are better candidates for future release, but rehabilitation and a safe area for release are both necessary.
November 2010: Our bear sanctuary in China currently contains almost 200 bears. These bears came to us from bile farms, where they have been incarcerated in tiny cages, often for years, and where holes have been carved into their abdomens to enable the farmers to extract their precious bile.
These bears all need surgery and most need long-term veterinary management. As such, the majority could never be released into the wild because they simply wouldn't survive.
Our Vietnam sanctuary, however, receives bears from a variety of sources, and has taken in several orphaned cubs confiscated by the authorities that have never had bile extracted. We are often asked whether these cubs might eventually be released back into the wild.
In an ideal world, we would love to be able to prepare these animals for a triumphant return to a safe area in the wild, where they could help the ever-diminishing wild populations to recover. However, before taking such a step, there are many factors to consider.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), consisting of the world's foremost experts in wildlife conservation, has issued numerous guidelines and protocols for the care of confiscated wildlife. Much of the reasoning given below has been formulated with reference to these IUCN publications.
Concerns for the welfare of captive-reared bears
Adult bears are predominantly solitary animals. However, as cubs, Asiatic black bears and sun bears are completely dependent on their mother for food and protection, and stay with her for up to two years. During this time, they learn from her the skills they will need to survive in the wild once they become independent.
The cubs we receive have been removed from their mother, usually at a very young age. In most cases it is likely that the mother bear will have been killed, or illegally trapped to stock a farm. While we do have the skills and resources to feed and raise the cubs, they are raised into a life in captivity, and do not learn the survival skills they would normally learn from their mother.
Captive-reared bears are used to people being around them and feeding them. If they were released, there is a good chance that a hungry, captive-reared bear might search out people when looking for food. This could bring the bear into conflict with local people and their livelihoods. When this happens, the animal inevitably ends up being killed or captured.
As bear farming is legal in China, and the laws in Vietnam are not properly enforced, there is a very good chance that such bears would end up being trapped and taken onto bear farms.
The preparation of captive wild animals, particularly complex animals such as bears, for release into the wild, is a difficult process and one that has very rarely been wholly successful. Jule et al. (2008) compared the survival rates of carnivores (including bears) released into the wild, and concluded that animals reared in the wild were much more likely to survive than those that were captive-reared before they were released.
Most releases of bears have involved American black bears (Ursus americanus) and brown/grizzly bears (Ursus arctos); there are very few accounts of the rehabilitation and release of Asiatic black bears or sun bears.
The chances of a poorly prepared captive-reared bear surviving in the wild are slim. The IUCN suggest that, if captive-reared animals are to be released into the wild, their chances of survival should be the same as that of a wild animal of the same age and sex in the same geographic area.
At present, we are simply not equipped with either the facilities or expertise to give our captive-reared cubs that guarantee. Releasing our captive-reared bears into the wild would potentially seriously compromise their welfare.
Wild-bear populations are declining in Asia. The Asiatic black bear is classified as "vulnerable" by the IUCN. Not enough is known about sun bears to assess their status, but their numbers are certainly declining. The main reasons for the decline of bear populations are loss and fragmentation of habitat, and persecution by people.
On the face of it, supplementing the remaining wild populations by releasing captive-reared bears into the wild would seem like a good way to increase the wild populations and help them recover. However, such actions are fraught with danger.
Captive-reared bears might easily come into conflict with their wild-reared counterparts after release.
The exact origin of captive-reared bears is often not known. If these animals were to survive in the wild and breed with the remaining wild populations, the genetic consequences would be unknown, and could be disastrous.
Captive-reared bears may have come into contact with infectious diseases during their time in captivity or transit that wild bears would not usually be exposed to. While this may not cause a problem for the captive-reared bear (and may not even be detected by the team of people involved in the rearing process), it could result in the spread of an exotic disease that could have dire consequences for the remaining wild populations, when the bear is released.
The IUCN Guidelines for the Placement of Confiscated Animals (2000) state:
"...if there is no conservation value in releasing confiscated animals to the wild or no management programme exists within which such release can be undertaken according to conservation guidelines, the possibility of accidentally introducing a disease, or behavioural and genetic aberrations that are not already present into the environment, however unlikely, should rule out returning confiscated specimens to the wild as a placement option..." (IUCN 2000)
So has it been done before?
The translocation or reintroduction of bears into the wild has been carried out successfully in the past.
Wild bears have been moved from places where the populations are healthy, to repopulate areas where they have died out, in both Europe and North America. This process is usually referred to as "translocation".
The bears that are selected to be moved are usually young adult bears that have spent their whole lives in the wild, so provided the area that they are being moved to is suitable as a habitat, they should have all the skills they need to adapt and survive.
This technique is usually used to repopulate areas where bears used to live, but have disappeared from, often due to overhunting or trapping, so there is no conflict with other wild bears.
Cubs orphaned by hunters have been successfully rehabilitated and released into the wild, in North America and in Russia. The Northern Lights Wildlife Society has successfully raised, rehabilitated and released a number of black and grizzly bears in Canada, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in cooperation with the Moscow Zoo, has to date released around 130 brown bears from their Orphaned Bear Rehabilitation Centre in Tver, Russia, into the forests.
The success of these operations depends very much on knowing the particular bears’ origins, and the availability of large habitats suitable for them to be released into. In addition, the centres carrying out this work are specialists in wildlife rehabilitation, and have large facilities with few bears at any one time, in order to facilitate the rehabilitation process.
Our centres in China and Vietnam are designed to be permanent homes to bears that have been rescued from bear farms. We currently have neither the funds nor the facilities to successfully rehabilitate bears for release into the wild, nor do we have suitable, safe habitats for such bears to be released into.
We hope that one day we might be able to consider rehabilitating suitable bears for release. In the meantime, our priority is to provide a safe, comfortable, and stimulating environment for all the bears we rescue.
Jule, K.R., Leaver, L.A. and Lea, S.E.G. (2008) The effects of captive experience on reintroduction survival in carnivores: A review and analysis. Biological Conservation Vol 141 Issue 2 pages 355-363.