BEARS AREN'T THE ONLY BEARS IN TROUBLE
You don't have to look beyond Time magazine or the Wall Street Journal these days to know that polar bears "are drowning as warmer waters widen the distance [between ice floes]" and "global warming could endanger species like the polar bear." Such reports are founded on authoritative Arctic research, and the attention on polar bears is well warranted. Apparently not even President Bush wants the dramatic white bears of the north to disappear.
When a charismatic species or group of organisms begins to decline and is threatened with foreseeable extinction, we often try to address the immediate crisis without resolving the overall problem. In addition, focus on a flagship species may draw our attention away from other groups of animals or plants that face equal or worse environmental threats. The polar bear is getting much needed attention, but what about the other bears?
Polar bears are one of the eight species of bears that exist in the world today. The cave bear (namesake of the "Clan of the Cave Bear" by Jean M. Auel), which went extinct less than 10,000 years ago, would have made nine. According to "Walker's Mammals of the World" by R. M. Nowak (1999, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore) all eight species belong to the bear family, Ursidae. The species are further divided into subgroups based on the closeness of their evolutionary relationships. One taxonomic scheme places the polar bear in a group with five others: brown (grizzlies), black (American and Asiatic), sun, and sloth bears. The spectacled bear of South America and the panda of China are alone in separate subfamilies.
Public awareness of grizzlies and black bears is extensive, but many conservation issues remain controversial. Should grizzlies be protected in national parks where people have been attacked? Should hunting of black bears be allowed in the United States? Should the killing of Asian black bears for their gall bladders--which are thought in some cultures to have medicinal values and sell for more than $1,000--be outlawed? None of these questions have a simple answer.
sun bear is the smallest bear in the world, seldom reaching 150 pounds.
Who knows what the fate will be for the little-known spectacled bear? These dark-colored bears with white circles around the eyes are reportedly declining throughout most of their range because of habitat loss and being overhunted in Peru and Venezuela.
habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. If the current environmental
trajectory continues, it will mean the end of the polar bear. Bears from
other regions are also threatened. Unless public attitudes about habitat
protection, greenhouse emissions, and the importance of letting other
species share the planet with us change--and soon--most of today's bears
may shortly join the cave bear in that black hole called extinction.