Moon Bear Day - why the sun must shine and the moon allowed to glow

08 August 2023

"The Sun needs the Moon, and the Moon needs the Sun. If they work together, they can be one." (Extract from The Moon and The Sun by Barry Pietrantonio.)

The Sun and the Moon are our constant companions. Our affection for these celestial bodies is demonstrated in the names that we have chosen for bears living naturally on the asian continent. 

The Asiatic black bear is affectionately known as the Moon Bear due to the splendour of the crescent shaped moon adorning their chest, and the malayan sun bear takes its name from its equally splendid bib-shaped golden crescent, representing the rising sun. Moon bears live in the mountainous forest of Eastern Asia from Afghanistan to Taiwan and Japan. The sun bear, the smallest bear species, lives in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.

Both species have evolved to thrive within their own natural environments, honing their foraging and navigational skills over generations to live within their very own complex natural world. 

Sadly their homes and an individual bears' ability to live within its natural environment have come under threat. Habitat loss and degradation across the Asian continent is pushing both species to the brink of extinction. 

Habitat is cleared for conversion to agriculture, urban development and an encroaching human population. Logging roads create convenient access for poachers, facilitating the hunting of bears. Habitat degradation increases the likelihood of human-bear interactions, and bears are labelled as a pest to be destroyed due to eating the crops that are now being grown on land which was once a part of their forest habitat. 

Many thousands of sun and moon bears also languish in appalling captive conditions, some kept on bear farms for the extraction of their bile, others forced to live in unnatural environments in substandard zoos with many brutalised into performing tricks or being used as photo props for a tourists selfie. Their lives being a far cry from that which they have evolved to live within, and the demand for bears to supply bear farms and circuses further threatening wild populations. 

Moon Bear Day provides us with a moment to reflect upon their lives and how we can help to change them for the better. Our work at Animals Asia in partnership with both the Chinese and Vietnamese authorities provides sanctuary for bears rescued from such appalling captive conditions, supporting individual bears back to health or providing them with dignity at the end of their lives.

But crucially we support the changes needed in the mindsets of those that live in and amongst the sun and the moon generating empathy for them as individuals and support for the protection of the very habitats they rely upon for their survival. 

To do this effectively we must learn to understand them and how they choose to live their own lives. 

Moon bears and sun bears are emotionally and socially complex, they are excellent communicators, have great memories, and they learn from each other. The ability to communicate effectively with others plays a critical role in their lives. Bears are visual, vocal and chemical communicators. 

Visually they communicate by the way in which they behave in the presence of each other, with other bears inferring and understanding an individual's intentions from such behaviours. Sun bears are known to use facial expressions to communicate their desire to play, often mimicking the facial expressions of other bears during periods of social play in a similar way to humans and apes.

Vocally, bears use growls, huffs, barks, and roars to tell others to express their emotions and behaviours. Other bears understand their meaning, inferring their emotional state and intentions from such communication.

Chemically, bears urinate, defecate and rub themselves against trees to leave their scent for others to detect, providing vital information about them as individuals and their intentions for being in their environment. 

Bears also have good memories. Throughout the year, they may eat many different types of food, and remember where to find these foods and at what time of the year they are ripe. Bears are also likely to share their living area with others in which they interact and need to remember familiar individuals, recognizing them and understanding their social status and their previous encounters.

Moon bears and sun bears have impressive ‘bed-making’ skills, making ‘beds’ and resting areas in trees by bending tree branches together. Other bear species have also demonstrated impressive tool use and problem solving abilities such as the brown bear and the American Black bear both of who have demonstrated problem solving abilities and an ability to transfer learning.

Moon bears and sun bears are also emotionally complex too. Mother bears are affectionate, protective and attentive toward their cubs, raising them to an age where they can survive on their own. Bear mums care deeply about their family and they will risk their lives and even fight to the death to save a cub or sibling from danger. They ‘talk’ to each other and understand how each other is feeling through their vocalisations and understanding of their behaviours. 

Bear cubs learn from their mums how to find food and how to stay safe, and by the time a young bear leaves its mum, it knows what foods are available at each time of the season, and what habitats are likely to have those foods over a very large area. That knowledge serves them well as they move into new areas, it knows what food and habitats are available. This knowledge is also critical to finding food when food sources change drastically from year to year depending upon weather and climate.

And of course, bears like to have fun and play with each other, with play bouts helping them develop socially whilst also helping learn essential survival skills. Cubs are particularly playful and they enjoy chasing and tackling their siblings. This play has distinct unwritten rules which individual bears must learn to adjust their actions around other bears.

And finally, bears play an important role in the lives of other animals. Moon bears  indirectly provide food for others on the forest floor by dropping oak acorns and pine nuts as they forage in the trees. Wild boars have even been observed to follow the bears' acoustic and olfactory signals and subsequently benefit from the windfall. As grazers, bears are also very good for the forest ecosystem, depositing seeds from the fruits they eat and helping to maintain a healthy natural environment.

It is this understanding of the complex emotional and cognitive lives of bears that can help us to further appreciate them as individuals and subsequently change our own behaviours towards protecting them and their habitats for future generations.

With bears being threatened by so many rapidly advancing factors we must use Moon bear day to reflect upon our own actions and how they impact the natural world, and to provide our support to those that are doing their best to ensure that the sun can always shine and the moon will always glow.